There is a sharp increase in killings of people with albinism in Malawi, according to a report by Amnesty International released on June 7, as the group called on authorities to do more to protect albinos.
The report shows that people with albinism are being killed for their body parts that are then used in ritual practices. Amnesty says the attacks against albinos has surged over the past 2 years. Four people and a baby were killed in April this year alone.
“The unprecedented wave of brutal attacks against people with albinism has created a climate of terror for this vulnerable group and their families who are living in a state of constant fear for their lives,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s director for southern Africa.
“Malawian authorities have dismally failed them, leaving this population group at the mercy of criminal gangs who hunt them down for their body parts,” said Muchena.
Since November 2014 at least 18 people have been murdered, while at least five have been kidnapped and have not been found.
The bones of people with albinism are believed to be sold to practitioners of traditional medicine in Malawi and Mozambique, according to Amnesty. They are used in charms and magical potions in the belief that they attract money and good luck. People also believe the bones of albinos contain gold.
The number of albinos being killed over their body parts is believed to be higher, since many secret rituals in rural areas are never reported. There is also no organized documentation of crimes against albinos, according to Amnesty.
The report shows that women and children are the most vulnerable to killings, and that close relatives sometimes target albinos.
In April, one of the killings involved a toddler who was taken away from her mother while sleeping at home. Pieces of her skull, some teeth and clothing were found days later on a nearby hill. Five men, including the child’s father, were arrested on suspicion that they had been involved in her murder, according to Amnesty.
Another case involved a 21-year-old woman who had been tricked by a relative into believing that he had found her a job in another district. She was stabbed in the chest and had her arms and legs cut off. Her body was found in a shallow grave by farmers in April. At least 10 men were arrested for the killing, including her relative.
Those who were abducted are still missing, including a 2-year-old who was taken from his mother at night in January 2015.
“We are worried that we do not know where Iblah is or where to find his grave,” his great aunt said. “We want the truth to come out. This child must be the last to go missing.”
The report shows that even albinos who are dead are sought after. At least 39 cases of illegal exhumations of remains of people with albinism or people in possession of body parts taken from corpses were reported to Malawi authorities. But Amnesty believes some of those cases may be actual murders instead of just grave thefts.
Authorities have documented at least 69 cases of violence against people with albinism since November 2014.
However, Amnesty also found that the Malawi Police Service lack proper training and skills needed to investigate cases involving albinos. There are also concerns that some police officers have the same prejudices that is seen throughout the Malawian society, leading them to fail in taking cases on people with albinism seriously.
Meanwhile, the Director of Public Prosecutions admitted that police prosecutors do not know all the relevant laws in dealing with crimes against albinos.
In Malawi, there are about 7,000 to 10,000 people with albinism, many living in fear.
The report found that albinos in the country are discriminated against, including verbal abuse, exclusion from accessing basic public services, as well as in the education system.
Many albinos also die from skin cancer because of lack of access to precautionary resources like sunscreen and information about the illness.
Women with albinism are called Machilitso, which means cure, since many believe that having sex with a person with albinism can cure HIV.
“When I was growing up I believed that I could do anything. Now I am very sensitive,” a woman with albinism told Amnesty about how the attacks impacted her life. “I cannot take a lift from strangers. In the past I was moving about without fear. After 5:30 p.m. I have to go home. I don’t feel safe.”
An albino man told Amnesty: “People tell me in my face that they will sell me. One time someone said I was worth MK6 million (US$10,000). I felt pained by the remarks that a price tag can be put on me.”
The organization called for a better response to violence against albinos.
“The time has come for the government of Malawi to stop burying its head in the sand and pretending that this problem will just go away,” said Muchena. “Police have a duty to protect all people against crime. Failure to effectively investigate crimes against people with albinism promotes a climate of impunity, an environment where horrific killings can continue.”