Albinos people increasingly killed for their body parts in Malawi

Malawi: Since November 2014, Malawi has seen a sharp increase in human rights abuses against people with albinism, including abductions, killings and grave robberies by individuals and criminal gangs. At least 18 people have been killed and at least five have been abducted and remain missing. According to the Malawi Police Service, at least 69 cases involving crimes related to people with albinism have been reported since November 2014.

People with albinism are being targeted for their body parts by those who believe that they contain magical powers and bring good luck. As a result, Malawi’s 7,000 to 10,000 people with albinism live in fear of losing their lives to criminal gangs who, in some instances, include close family members.

Although the attacks are being committed by criminal gangs and by individuals, the Government of Malawi has an obligation under the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to ensure safety for all people in Malawi, including vulnerable groups such as people with albinism.

Women and children with albinism are particularly vulnerable to abductions and killings by criminal gangs, who see them as easier targets. Women also face the danger of rape and sexual abuse as a result of beliefs that having sex with a person with albinism will cure HIV/AIDS.

Over the past year and a half, a disturbing and violent trend has been growing in Malawi, a country often known by its nickname: “The Warm Heart of Africa.”

Albinism is more common in sub-Saharan Africa than elsewhere in the world. Superstitions about the condition are rife, especially in Malawi and neighboring Tanzania and Mozambique. Others believe that the bones of albino people contain gold, or have medicinal or even magical properties. That demand, stemming from a ritual medicine revival in Malawi, is fueling the spate of murders by gangs that, allegedly, can make as much as $75,000 selling a “full set” of albino body parts, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Ikponwosa Ero, an independent expert who works with the United Nations on issues around albinism, told Al Jazeera that she thinks albinos in parts of southern Africa face extinction. “I said that this will happen over time if nothing is done,” she said. “The situation is a potent mix of poverty, witchcraft beliefs and market forces which push people to do things for profit.”

In a vacuum of public knowledge about the causes of albinism, many albinos are shunned by their families, and parents are often baffled by giving birth to albino children. The abductions and killings, some of which have been particularly gruesome, have instilled a culture of fear in the albino population. While Amnesty says that the police have done little to combat the rise of so-called “albino hunters,” the police say they are doing everything they can. Last year, Malawi’s inspector general of police authorized his officers to shoot any suspected “albino hunter” on sight.