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Statement by the United Nations Independent Expert on the enjoyment of human rights by persons with albinism, Ms. Ikponwosa Ero, upon conclusion of her official visit to Malawi – 18 to 29 April, 2016

At the invitation of the Government of Malawi, I conducted an official visit from the 18th to the 29th of April 2016.  First, I wish to sincerely thank the Government of Malawi for its openness and good cooperation in ensuring that the visit was most fruitful. I am also grateful to the United Nations bodies and specialized agencies in Malawi for facilitating all aspects of my visit.   

During my visit, I travelled to the cities of Lilongwe, and Blantyre as well as to the districts of Machinga, Zomba, Phalombe and Kasungu. The following comments represent my preliminary findings following consultations with a wide variety of stakeholders including from the Executive, Judiciary, Legislature, Local Government, Law Enforcement, the Malawi Human Rights Commission, Traditional Authorities, the University of Malawi, civil society, persons with albinism themselves including victims of attacks and their families, the United Nations Country Team and Development Partners.

Persons with albinism in Malawi are being attacked, abducted and killed. Even in death, they do not rest in peace as their remains are robbed from graveyards. These atrocities occur due to the misbelief that their body parts can grant benefits such as wealth and good luck when used in witchcraft. The body parts allegedly sell for high prices, on the black market.  Women and children are disproportionately targeted by the attacks. To date, according to the police, 65 cases have been registered since late 2014. At least two further incidents reportedly occurred during my visit. These are reported cases alone.

The atrocities in Malawi render persons with albinism an endangered people group facing a risk of systemic extinction over time if nothing is done to stem the tide. The situation constitutes an emergency, a crisis disturbing in its proportions. Given the relatively small population size of people with albinism in the country - reported to be a little less than ten thousand - attacks against a few of them constitutes a danger to all of them.  For example in the most affected Traditional Authorities of the District of Machinga, a district particularly affected by attacks, in 2015 alone, seven cases of attacks against persons with albinism were reported, one case of a disappearance is still under investigation, and seven cases consisting of possession of body parts of persons with albinism or graveyard robberies were also reported. Given that there are only 121 persons with albinism in the most affected Traditional Authorities of the district, this data is staggering and is a microcosm of other scenarios across the country. The current lack of accurate data on the number of persons with albinism should be rectified, at the latest, in the next national census scheduled for 2019.

Persons with albinism, and parents of children with albinism, constantly live in fear of attack. Many do not sleep peacefully and have deliberately restricted their movement to the necessary minimum, during daylight hours and when escorted by trustworthy persons. Mothers have sent their children to live with relatives or in boarding schools. Yet, even there, the fear remains. Boarding schools staff are concerned for the safety of their students and such establishments are in immediate need of security measures.  Other children have dropped out of school to remain under the protection of their parents. In addition, victims of attacks and their families are deeply traumatised and are in dire need of assistance in rebuilding their lives and restoring their dignity including the provision of psycho-social assistance.

The livelihoods of parents of children with albinism have also been affected by these atrocities. Due to the need to stay at home and protect their children, parents do not attend to their crops or go to the market. Adults with albinism are unable to go to their gardens alone as they used to. This has driven families already living in poverty into dire straits.

The insecurity of persons with albinism is worsened by their poor living conditions. Some abductions are reported to have taken place from houses that do not have wooden doors or locks. Providing basic items such as mobile phones, torches and whistles, and involving communities in their protection would be a first step in enhancing security. In addition, a free emergency line to report attacks against persons with albinism and a wide dissemination of that number would facilitate reporting and speedy intervention.

Attacks have mostly occurred in rural communities and frequently close to the border, such as the killing of Eunice Phiri in Kasungu national park in January 2016.   It is important that the Government enhances its working relationships with law enforcement authorities from neighbouring countries, such as through Memoranda of Understanding. The Malawi Police Service should engage in sustained and intense sensitization of border communities.  The strong rural element of these cases does not mean that interventions in the city should be overlooked. During my visit, for example I had the opportunity to speak to a victim in the city of Blantyre and another critical incident was reported in Lilongwe.

The frequent involvement of close relatives in cases of attacks against persons with albinism is highly disturbing. Similarly, in cases of graveyard robberies, there is little doubt that close relatives or a person close to the deceased are involved since the identification of graveyards of persons with albinism requires very specific information. The involvement of relatives increases the danger posed to persons with albinism as they are unable to trust even those who are supposed to care for and protect them.

I welcome the launch of the Government’s Response Plan March 2015 and commend its content. I fear that the absence of resources attached to this plan has drastically delayed its implementation. Such an emergency situation needs an emergency response, and I saw insufficient action taken to date. Stronger leadership, a greater profile, and elevation for the issue is necessary along with the provision of adequate resources, which could be found, for example, within the Office of the President and Cabinet under the leadership of a high ranking official. If such a solution is adopted, it should include the expertise of the Department of Disability of the Ministry of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare.

Court sentences as handed down to convicted criminals do not always reflect the gravity of the crime. As pointed out by various stakeholders, stealing a cow may attract a higher penalty than attacks against persons with albinism. In addition, in certain instances, possession of body parts has only been punished by a fine amounting to less than the alleged price of body parts on the black market. Similarly, bail has been granted to suspects in several cases. The early return of suspects to their communities – whether due to the use of bail, fines or low judicial sentences - increases the fear in which persons with albinism live, sends a message of impunity to affected communities and increases the risks of mob killings.

The current judicial response is also linked to gaps in the legal framework. While I welcome the newly adopted Trafficking in Persons Act which includes stiffer penalties for trafficking in persons and children, other legislation applicable to other types of cases requires reform. The Penal Code for example which applies in nearly all these cases was not drafted in contemplation of such horrendous attacks. The result of outdated laws such as the Penal Code is a reliance on the Anatomy Act which was drafted for a medical context and carries relatively low penalties for the possession of body parts.

The amendment of relevant legislation such as the penal code should consider  expanding the provisions on murder, assault, abduction and relevant misdemeanour offences, with stiffer penalties where such acts where committed with the intent to use or sell persons or body parts for witchcraft purposes and beliefs. In essence, the commission of a crime for the purposes of witchcraft could be an aggravating factor built into the provision itself. For example, the Trafficking in Persons Act provides that an aggravating factor in the offence of child trafficking is when the child is trafficked for the purpose of removing body parts or extracting tissues or organs.   

Although the amendment of relevant legislation such as these is required, more immediate measures are also necessary. The response should include initiatives such as the adoption by the Judiciary of a practice direction pronouncing that such crimes be handled only by a professional magistrate. Such a direction should extend to all crimes related to persons with albinism, including possession of body parts. Similarly, the current revision of the Sentencing Guidelines is an opportunity to clarify the circumstances of such crimes and the sentences that should be pronounced.

Training for police, prosecutors and magistrates is also necessary to increase knowledge of the current legislative framework applicable to these cases. The judicious use of multiple pieces of legislation is likely to increase sentencing in these cases. While several pieces of legislation could apply to these cases: the Penal Code, the Anatomy Act, the Trafficking in Persons Act, the Disability Act, and the Child Care, Protection and Justice Act, a significant number of  prosecutors and investigators I met with, were only aware of the Penal Code. Compilation and dissemination of these provisions, Sentencing Guidelines, and practice directions regarding attacks against persons with albinism, combined with adequate and ongoing training, would provide an immediate answer to such a pressing issue.

I welcome the recent appointment of the special prosecutor from the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs. However, I note that the person selected is still awaiting formal nomination, as well as release from his other duties. Given the emergency, he should be provided with adequate resources to address such an urgent and daunting task, which includes frequent travel across the country to follow up on the prosecution of cases.

Enhanced investigative research is necessary. To date, no investigation has identified neither the markets for body parts or final recipients. Too often it is only perpetrators at the end of the chain that are caught and sentenced, while those commissioning the offence are not apprehended. Stronger cooperation between the police and the Department of Public Prosecutions, as well as adequate resources will facilitate the collection of evidence needed to fight the demand side of this macabre market.

I would like to commend the protection measures adopted by community police and some traditional authorities as well as the support provided by communities to their members with albinism. The quick intervention of neighbours during attacks has in various cases led to the rescue of persons with albinism and to the arrest of perpetrators. Such work is laudable but requires support through the provision of adequate resources to community police, to facilitate the reporting of incidents to police.

Addressing the root causes of attacks, in particular why they are happening, is indispensable to eradicating them. Attacks are directly linked to beliefs that body parts of persons with albinism when used in charms or potions can, for example, increase wealth, make businesses prosperous, or facilitate employment. It is worrying to note that witchcraft beliefs and practices are widespread in Malawi, although often a taboo topic. I am particularly alarmed by reports from persons with albinism that they are being called “money” as they walk the streets and their neighbourhoods.

Another factor is the apparent lack of distinction between traditional healers/herbalists, often seen as a social good on the one hand, and professed witchdoctors/magicians often resulting in social evil on the other hand. Oversight is needed for traditional medicine practitioners through, for example, the regulation of their practice by registration and licensing. Ongoing discussions in the framework of the review of the Witchcraft Act are most pertinent and should lead to an in depth reflection of such practices in Malawi.  They should not lead to the legalisation of witchcraft practices. The continued criminalisation of witchcraft accusations as provided for under the current Act remains desirable in its intent. The criminalisation of possession of body parts intended for witchcraft should be considered through expanded criminal provisions, as discussed earlier. The holding of a mere belief in witchcraft should not be criminalised in light of the Constitutional protection of freedom of religion or belief.

Poverty can also be considered a root cause. Malawi is one of the world’s poorest countries, and the sale of body parts of persons with albinism is believed to be very lucrative. Perpetrators recruited to abduct or kill a person with albinism, or informants revealing where persons with albinism live, are often promised millions of Kwachas. Yet, in practice, I have not heard or seen a single person being wealthier after taken part in such attacks. In a context where a family member with albinism is often perceived as a burden that increases poverty, relatives could be tempted to connive in such attacks thinking, erroneously, that it would provide a source of income, while alleviating their burden. This situation calls for, in addition to an increased security and protection, access to government social welfare programs and other benefits by persons with albinism so that they are not seen as burdens by their relatives.

Malawians have been taken by surprise by the recent increase of attacks against persons with albinism. Yet, discrimination against persons with albinism in Malawi is not new and there is a general lack of understanding that albinism should be understood as a type of disability.  Discrimination has a long history in well rooted in beliefs as well as harmful traditional and cultural practices, including that persons with albinism do not die but simply disappear, and the practice of infanticide at birth on the pretext that the baby was stillborn. Such beliefs discriminating against persons with albinism have led to the rejection of women who give birth to children with albinism by their partners, as well as to the exclusion of persons with albinism from their communities and rejection from their families. In this regard, I met a young woman who, in the context of the current attacks, was deemed too dangerous by her family to stay with them and was expelled while the family, against her will, kept her children without albinism.  

It is fundamental to raise awareness on albinism to fight such rampant myths and resulting discrimination. To this end, I welcome the statements of President Mutharika condemning the attacks, calling on the police to arrest perpetrators and protect persons at risk. Such awareness raising campaigns should intensify, be wide-reaching, in both English and Chichewa, involve persons with albinism, target communities and villages through various forms of media, involve key stakeholders including traditional authorities and faith-based organisations and should be sustained continuously for at least 2 years.

The promotion of persons with albinism as role models is also particularly important to ensure their full integration. I would encourage in this framework the nomination of a person with albinism to a high level position in Government.

It is concerning to hear that victims and persons with albinism generally are not benefiting from the various government programs meant to help those in most dire need. Persons with albinism in the current context of attacks are locked in a spiral of fear and poverty. Unable to leave their houses to go to school or work on their fields, and often limiting the movement of at least one of their family member to protect them, their situation, already precarious due to discrimination, further deteriorates. They are the most vulnerable amongst the most vulnerable and I encourage the Government of Malawi to consider reviewing the criteria to ensure their inclusion in such programs. Such measures should also take into account their vulnerability to skin cancer and vision impairment, and should not, for example, involve working outdoors.

Due to the lack of production of melanin or colour pigment in persons with albinism, they are particularly vulnerable to skin cancer. In Malawi, skin cancer is a life-threatening condition for persons with albinism as facilities providing adequate medical interventions are few. Although there are no specific figures available for Malawi, statistics of other regions of Africa indicate that persons with albinism die early from skin cancer between the ages of 30 and 40. This means that cancer is likely to be the leading cause of death for persons with albinism.

However, there are several effective and easy ways to prevent skin cancer including the lifetime use of sun protection cream and sun protective clothing. Although programs have been developed, the provision of sunscreen in Malawi is adhoc and relies on international donations.  Such fundamental goods of primary necessity should be provided in a reliable manner, in line with the principles of availability, accessibility and affordability. Sun protection lotion should be included on the list of essential medicines, free of charge, and distributed regularly to all communities, using mechanisms such as Health Surveillance Assistants. In addition, trainings and readily available information on albinism and related health issues should be provided to mothers of children with albinism at an early stage to ensure that adequate protection is provided to their babies. Similarly, a lack of melanin in the eyes results in high sensitivity to bright light and significant vision impairment. Free clinical assessments should be provided to persons with albinism along with glasses as a measure of reasonable accommodation. As these programs necessitate a specific expertise, the Ministry of Health would be the best placed to champion such programs.

Discrimination at schools, both by students and teachers, has led many children with albinism to stop their education and such a situation predates the significant increase in attacks. School dropout is particularly grave for children with albinism as it destroys their chances of finding work indoors which in turn exposes them to a high risk of skin cancer and early death. Training of teachers is necessary and should include measures such as ensuring that children with albinism are sitting at the front row, teachers’ notes are provided to them, large print writing is used on the blackboard, and awareness on albinism is raised among other students. Such information should be included in the Initial Primary Teacher Curriculum currently being reviewed.

The inclusive education policy adopted by the Government of Malawi should be commended. The role of special needs educators is fundamental in ensuring the success of this policy. However, without the necessary resources to regularly access all schools where there are children with albinism as a constituent of those having special needs, it will not be possible to fully implement this policy. In such schools, as a measure of reasonable accommodation, low vision devices and large print material should be made available.

The primary responsibility to promote and protect the rights of persons with albinism falls on the Government of Malawi, although it faces an immense task that it cannot cope with alone. It is clear that an urgent and coordinated response from the Government, civil society and development partners  working in strong partnership with each other is required. In all actions and interventions on this issue, I strongly urge government and all stakeholders to uphold the principle of “nothing about us without us” and to involve organizations of persons with albinism at every step, where the process cannot be led directly by them.