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‘Witchcraft’ beliefs triggers attacks against people with albinism – UN expert warns in new report

GENEVA (22 March 2016) – People with albinism are being hunted for witchcraft rituals, their body parts hacked off with machetes, and even having their graves desecrated, United Nations expert Ikponwosa Ero warns in her first report* to the UN Human Rights Council. 

Since Ms. Ero assumed her duties eight months ago as Independent Expert on the enjoyment of human rights by persons with albinism there have been reports of 40 attacks across seven countries, but she says that represents just a fraction of the total as most are secretive rituals in rural areas that are never reported; some even involve the victims’ own family members being complicit. 

“Dangerous myths feed these attacks on innocent people: many erroneously believe people with albinism are not human beings, but are ghosts or subhuman and cannot die but only disappear,” she said. “Tragically many believe the condition is a curse.”

In her report, the Independent Expert presents a plan to spearhead the identification of root causes of attacks. “This will include careful understanding, definition and delineation of witchcraft practice, the form it takes and the effects it has on persons with albinism,” she stated.

“Effective measures to end attacks will include plans to fast track immediate investigation of allegations and prosecution of alleged perpetrators; appropriate legal, social, psychological and medical remedy and redress for victims; actions to prevent trafficking in body parts, as well as measures for the safe re-integration of displaced persons with albinism,” Ms. Ero said.

“While discrimination based on skin colour is an everyday reality for most persons with albinism, discourse on discrimination based on colour has rarely been applied to albinism,” the Independent Expert notes in her report, explaining that it’s tended to focus on race or ethnicity.

“There is potential to address albinism under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination because the governing concept is racial discrimination which may be based on any of five ‘grounds’: race, colour, descent, national origin and ethnic origin,” she underscored.

Albinism – a condition caused by lack of melanin in the skin, hair and eyes – is a non-contagious, genetically inherited condition affecting people worldwide. In some areas it can affect as many as 1 in 70 people, although in general 1 in 5000 to 1 in 20,000 are affected by the condition. It requires both parents to carry the gene.

A lucrative and macabre market has emerged in the body parts of people with albinism being traded for use in witchcraft rituals, potions or amulets, with reported prices ranging from $2,000 for a limb to $75,000 for a ‘complete set’ or corpse.

There are reports of victims being dismembered while still alive – their fingers, arms, legs, eyes, genitals, skin, bones, head and hair hacked off. Indeed many involved in these crimes believe that the body parts being used for potions will be more effective the more the victim screams.

Children also make up a large proportion of the victims, not least because of another traditional belief that the more innocent a victim is the more potent his or her body parts will be for the potion.

Thousands of people with albinism are being subjected to stigma and discrimination around the world and the violations are met with passivity and indifference. This ranges from bullying at school to more extreme manifestations such as infanticide, physical threats and attacks.

Women with albinism are reportedly the victims of targeted sexual assaults because of a myth that sex with them can cure HIV/AIDS. Mothers are ostracized or discriminated against if they give birth to a child with albinism because it’s seen as the result of a curse, a bad omen or of infidelity.

There are also the serious health implications of albinism, in particular the vulnerability to skin cancer. Some reports from Africa suggest most people with albinism die between the ages of 30 and 40 years.

In many cases the risks could be reduced with greater understanding; it’s not uncommon for parents to put a newborn with albinism out in the sun for hours or for adults with albinism to spend their days in the sun without using sun protection cream or protective clothing.

(*) Check the Independent Expert first report to the UN Human Rights Council: http://ap.ohchr.org/documents/dpage_e.aspx?si=A/HRC/31/63

Ms. Ikponwosa Ero (Nigeria) was designated in June 2015 as the first UN Independent Expert on the enjoyment of human rights by persons with albinism by the Human Rights Council. Inspired by her experiences as a person with albinism, Ms. Ero spent the last seven years working on the enjoyment of human rights by persons with albinism. As international advocacy and legal officer of Under The Same Sun, an NGO with a focus on albinism, she participated in multiple activities and panels at the UN in Geneva and New York. She has extensive experience in research, policy development and advocacy in the field of albinism. She is the author of numerous papers and articles on the issue, including with regards to the categorisation of persons with albinism in the international human rights system. Learn more, log on to: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Albinism/Pages/IEAlbinism.aspx

The Independent Experts are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

Check the special website: “People with albinism: not ghosts, but human beings - http://albinism.ohchr.org/

For inquiries and media requests, please contact please contact Arnaud Chaltin (+41 22 917 9188 / achaltin@ohchr.org) or write to albinism@ohchr.org

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts:
Xabier Celaya – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / xcelaya@ohchr.org)  

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