Upon the invitation of the government of Mozambique, I conducted an official visit to the country from 21 August to 3 September 2016.
During my visit I travelled to Maputo, Nampula and Beira, where I consulted widely with Government representatives at the national and provincial level, civil society, traditional healers, religious leaders, United Nations and other international humanitarian and human rights partners. I also had meetings with persons with albinism and their families, witnessed an ongoing trial involving the attempted sale of a body part of a person with albinism, met with families of victims of attacks, and detainees accused of crimes against persons with albinism.
I thank the Government of Mozambique for its invitation and for the high level meetings provided. I also sincerely thank the United Nations Country Team in Mozambique for facilitating all aspects of my visit.
Persons with albinism in Mozambique are hunted and their body parts wanted; from head to toe, from cradle to grave, even their hair, nails and faeces are collected. A sudden surge of physical attacks against persons with albinism including kidnapping and trafficking in persons was officially reported in Mozambique at the end of 2014 and intensified mid-2015. The attacks are fuelled by the witchcraft-linked belief that the body parts of persons with albinism can produce wealth when used in witchcraft potions, or can bring success in particular industries such as artisanal mining and fishing. Civil society organisations report well over a hundred attacks between 2014 and 2015. Yet, reliable data remains unavailable as there are no national NGOs or other bodies systemically monitoring the number of attacks. What is certain according to a wide range of stakeholders, is that the cases are likely underreported as most attacks occur in rural areas where monitoring is low.
Further, reports of attacks are hindered by the secrecy that often surrounds witchcraft practices and organized crimes such as these. The frequent involvement of family members means that some cases are not reported as victims who survive may fear the repercussion of testifying against them. Therefore, while a decline in attack has been recorded since 2015, attacks continue to be reported.
Real fear exists among persons with albinism across the country. The situation is aggravated by the fact that persons with albinism are ultimately unable to trust even those who are supposed to care for and protect them. Further, given that persons with albinism are a relatively small group estimated at 20,000 to 30,000 sprinkled across the country, an attack on one person in the community constitutes an attack on all. 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 through access to psycho-social and socio-economic assistance. The attention needed by this endangered social group is a real test of the success of the goal of leaving no one behind as encapsulated by the UN sustainable goals and adhered to by all member states including Mozambique.
The government`s response so far to the crises faced by persons with albinism is commendable. It includes a multi-sectorial plan of action [Plano De Acção Multissectorial Para Responder A Problemática Da Pessoa Albina E Sua Protecção] to address the issue of the protection of persons with albinism. The Plan contains specific measures on the issue to be carried out in the short, medium and long terms. It identifies particular actors responsible for each measure as well as a clear timetable for its implementation. Further, the Plan incorporates a dual approach to the issue that is likely to be effective if fully implemented. The dual approach includes, on the one hand, an emergency or priority response in the area of protection and prevention regarding attacks. On the other hand, it aims to address, through policy, discrimination generally as well as in socio-economic rights, disability rights, health rights, and other human rights issues outside the context of attacks. The policy will be based on the studies and information collected from research anticipated by the Plan.
However, some aspects of the Plan should be strengthened in order to ensure its full implementation. Of paramount concern is the lack of a secure budget for implementing it. The reliance on Ministerial budgets makes the Plan subject to competing priorities of each Ministry and puts at stake immediate response required for the issue. Therefore, it is necessary to ensure that budgets are earmarked for the Plan so that funds intended for its implementation are not diverted. Further there is a lack of a tracking mechanism for scheduled measures and no clear mechanisms of accountability within the Plan. In this regard, increasing the human and financial resources of the current coordinator of Plan, namely the Ministry of Justice, is necessary.
It is also important to ensure wide dissemination of the Plan amongst ministries and civil society as authorities at provincial level as well as key human rights organizations were sometimes unaware of the existence and content of the plan. Further, the Plan is lacking in collaborative engagement of key human rights mechanisms such as the National Human Rights Commission, civil society and the office of the Ombudsman.
These should be further engaged in the multi-sectorial working committee and resourced as implementers to expedite integration of the issue into the human rights landscape.
The use of existing mechanisms serving vulnerable groups is also to be commended. Of particular note is the use of reference groups which prove to be very useful in fighting attacks. Reference groups, which were formed a few years ago to fight trafficking in persons, organs and body parts involve provincial entities, traditional authorities and members of civil society. With the increase in reports of attacks, they have promptly incorporated the issue of kidnapping and trafficking of body parts of persons with albinism in their operations. Such operations include rapid information-sharing across their networks, alert systems, and coordinated action. Further, reference groups prolifically use media, including and particularly community radio, as a means of spreading useful information to the country`s mostly rural population.
Similarly GABINFO, the national information office, has been very active in developing material, including community radio programs to raise awareness and share scientific information on albinism. While recognising the efforts and results of both the multi-sectorial committee and reference groups, it appears that they are not aware of each other’s efforts. An increase in collaboration and complementarity between both of these groups is necessary for the sharing of best practices and coordinating strategies of service delivery.
In addition, the new Penal Code (2015) provides the police and judiciary with adequate tools to deal with the specificities of cases of attacks against persons with albinism. For example, the Code contemplates not only trafficking in persons and organs but also trafficking of body parts as well as other relevant offenses such as kidnapping, murder and grave tampering. The Code also prescribes sentences that are generally viewed as proportionate to these crimes and Judges have discretion to weigh in aggravating circumstances upon sentencing.
The judicial response of Mozambique is positively noteworthy as Mozambique appears to have the highest number of cases that have been prosecuted on this matter in the region. According to the Supreme Court, since 2014, 65 criminal cases have been initiated by district and provincial courts: 36 in the Province of Zambezia, 15 in Nampula, 4 in Tete, 4 in Cape Delgado, 3 in Sofala, 2 in Niassa, and 1 in Inhambane. The systematic prioritisation of cases of attacks as recommended by guidelines from the Supreme Court combined with proportionate sentencing and the publicity around these is reasonably linked to the recent decline in reported attacks.
I would also like to highlight the efforts made by Mozambique to ensure access to adequate and affordable health services for persons with albinism. The free dermatology and ophthalmology consultations for persons with albinism in the three regional central hospitals constitute good practice. However, such efforts should be strengthened to ensure, for example with a mobile clinic, that persons with albinism in remote areas can be screened for skin cancer since the disease kills more persons with albinism in the region than physical attacks. Adding sunscreen on the list of essential medicines was also a key step taken by Mozambique, yet, efforts remain to be made to ensure that sunscreen and skin cancer treatment are constantly available and accessible including in rural areas at little or no cost. Similarly, consultations with ophthalmologists, prescription glasses as well as low vision devices should be made available at little or no cost to persons with albinism.
I also welcome the three inclusive education centres in Mozambique that can accommodate students, including students with special needs, in their boarding school facilities. However, such an inclusive education program should not be limited to these three centres, and special needs educators should train teachers so that they can address the needs of children with albinism in all schools throughout the country. Current state policy aimed at making all schools fully inclusive should be systematically implemented.
An issue that was raised by various persons with albinism during my visit was their difficulty in finding employment. It was reported that although they were called, based on their applications, for interviews, after a face to face meeting with the employer they were often not recommended for the post. Mechanisms, including those of the National Human Rights Commission and the office of the Ombudsman should be promoted to ensure that such decisions are not taken based on the appearance of persons with albinism. Similarly, it appears that the quota established by the labour laws requesting that 5% of persons with disabilities are employed within the public sector is not fully implemented.
I was particularly surprised by the lack of awareness of the existing programs and services provided by the Government. Persons with albinism, civil society organisations but also state officials were often not aware of health services – albeit limited - provided by the central hospitals, the mandated quota of 5% of employment of persons with disabilities within the public sector, and the multi-sectorial action plan on albinism. I was also surprised to see that despite the services provided by the inclusive education centres, they seemed to be relatively unknown in the community and consequently have not reached their full enrollment capacity. It is particularly important that information about such facilities reaches organisations of persons with albinism, state entities at all levels, and all communities.
While training is necessary for all stakeholders working on this issue, such as State actors, Civil Society Organisations and the media, empowerment of persons with albinism is also key. As stressed by persons with albinism during a meeting, it is fundamental that they “fully affirm their identity in society” without being belittled. 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.
Similarly it is particularly important for the mothers of children with albinism to be empowered as they are the first line of defence for their child. While relatives of persons with albinism have been implicated in attacks – including fathers – there are no reported cases involving the birth mothers of persons with albinism. Further, given the immense amount of familial pressure on mothers to get rid of or abandon their children with albinism at birth, there is a need to support those mothers who have overcome this hurdle as they have proven themselves to be protectors of their children. Proactive awareness raising targeting women in general to prepare them for the possibility of having a child with albinism could be a further measure of protection in this regard.
Despite all the successes achieved in Mozambique, the security of persons with albinism remains precarious due to underlying causes of attacks which while somewhat identified, are yet to be fully uprooted. These include, first, the inability to find and arrest the masterminds, who authorities believe operate in a secretive but powerful cross-border network akin to that of drug barons. To date, none of these have been caught or prosecuted and perceived networks are yet to be identified. While there is a belief that the mastermind is from outside of Mozambique, there are insufficient facts supporting this assertion and until then, care should be taken in making such inferences so that xenophobia is not stoked as the country welcomes refugees and migrants. What is clear at this stage is that the vast majority of persons arrested and prosecuted to date are nationals of the country therefore all efforts aimed at sensitizing the population including through the multi-sectorial action plan should be intensely implemented.
Investigative research remains necessary to fully understand the phenomenon of attacks, its rootcauses and patterns of trafficking of body parts, to see whether there are international networks, and to identify the masterminds at the root of this demand. Such investigative research would also benefit from a regional approach.
Secondly, given the configuration of the country and the distance between certain communities, district and provincial capitals, ensuring protection to all persons with albinism and reaching all communities for awareness raising programs require a lot of resources. Yet, such access is necessary for protection, awareness raising on albinism, dissemination of knowledge on existing services and to ensure that attacks are reported. The resourcing of associations serving persons with albinism and other human rights organizations is necessary in this regard.
Third, there remains an absence of disaggregated data on persons with albinism. The effectiveness of measures on protection, prevention and policy building is strongly correlated to accurate data. The absence of such data should be rectified, at the latest, in the next national census scheduled for 2017.
Fourth, there remains a context of discrimination against persons with albinism and a lack of knowledge of the condition. Both of these are conducive to witchcraft beliefs and are exploited by masterminds and perpetrators alike. Discrimination against persons with albinism, even in its most extreme forms, is widespread, and far from being a new phenomenon, it seems to be deeply rooted in historical beliefs and social behaviour. Such behaviour include spitting on the floor after seeing a person with albinism to avoid having children with albinism and refusing to shake hands with or touch persons with albinism to avoid perceived contagion. Further, there are myths including that persons with albinism do not die but simply disappear and that a child with albinism is a curse.. The names by which persons with albinism are addressed such as “fortuna,” “bolada,” or “riqueza”, make direct reference to the alleged value of their body parts. Stigmatisation of mothers of children with albinism and families were also reported, and cases of discrimination within the family ranging from hiding the child to structural separation of the child with albinism from their siblings in all aspects of life including family meals, were also reported. Discrimination also exposes persons with albinism to attack as they tend to live far away from the community in an act of self-isolation to protect themselves from abuse and mistreatment. This leaves them ultra-vulnerable to attacks.
General poverty in society also continues to threaten the work of the government on this issue. With body parts of persons with albinism allegedly priced by masterminds at millions to billions of Meticais, the logical attraction of the gullible into this macabre trade needs no illustration. It should however be stressed that I have never come across a case where money had effectively been paid for the body parts.
Persons with albinism are amongst the poorest, most vulnerable and are in dire need of support. They have been generally neglected and left out of human rights discourses and services to various social groups. Even though a rectification of this situation is anticipated in the Plan, implementation of the Plan is weak and services appear not to reach those who need them the most.
Further, the poverty of persons with albinism renders them ultra-vulnerable to attacks. This is because they tend to live in unsecure homes. It also means that they often cannot afford basic items for protection such as mobile phones. Mobile phones are particularly important as text messages are often used by various persons with albinism through their associations to stay aware of each other’s whereabouts as a protection measure. Similarly, due to lack of resources, the gravesites of persons with albinism are often very simple leaving them vulnerable to exhumation and theft of body parts.
There are a high number of traditional healers in the country who operate with minimal regulation. While traditional healers play a crucial role in providing health and other related services to citizens, it is often not clear whose practice is purely in the area of traditional medicine and those who dabble into witchcraft or practices using the body parts of persons with albinism. I was glad to see that the ministry of health is working together with a key organisation of traditional healers of Mozambique,”AMETRAMO.” However, enhanced oversight is needed for traditional medicine practitioners through, for example, regulating their practice with legislation and a licensing regime issued and governed by the Ministry of Health. This should be complemented by a government-led monitoring mechanism which sanctions non-registered practitioners.
It was clear from discussions with members of AMETRAMO that advertisement in newspapers or on radio, in particular those offering to make one richer, cure incurable diseases, get one out of prison, or any other apparently unreasonable purpose, were not made by traditional healers. It is therefore important to regulate the publication of such advertisement when they are obviously misleading and contribute to witchcraft and related practices. AMETRAMO should also continue its awareness raising activities by publically denouncing such offers and practices that do not fall within the normal practice of traditional healers.
A major risk factor to the progress made by Mozambique on the issue of attacks against persons with albinism is the risk of failure to fully implement the multi-sectorial plan of action. Mozambique is currently facing serious economic and political crises. The political tensions emerged after the main opposition party rejected the outcome of the 2014 legislative elections in six of the country's 11 provinces, and this has led to ongoing armed clashes affecting various provinces. The economic issues arise out of a mixture of factors including the drastic drop of prices of natural resources as well as the divulged scandal of secret loans undertaken by State-owned companies which have raised the national debt to 86% of the country’s gross domestic product. An ongoing draught continues to impact food security, nutrition and potable water for thousands of people in the south and central region of the country. Internally displaced people due to drought and the armed clashes have also been reported. I hope for a prompt and peaceful solution to these issues.
In such a context, the Government is confronted with various competing priorities. However, it is important not to dismiss the situation of persons with albinism. Efforts made by the government after the attacks have started bearing fruits, therefore interrupting these efforts by delay or dismissal of the budget of the plan of action could lead to a resurgence of attacks as the situation remains volatile. It is worthy of note that a lack of action in such a situation of economic and political uncertainty could boost a resort to witchcraft, including with body parts of persons with albinism, for luck and wealth. Given the estimated size of the population of Mozambicans with albinism, continued work on protection and anti-discrimination in the Plan can and needs to be achieved particularly in view of the ongoing economic and political climate.
While the primary responsibility of action on the issue lies in the hand of government, I call upon the international community including development partners and civil society to integrate the issue into their existing programs while also developing particular measures. I also call upon regional bodies to intensify cooperation to address attacks against persons with albinism, and in particular to address possible cross-border elements.
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 involve organizations of persons with albinism at every step, where the process cannot be led directly by them. In this regard, the capacity of organisations of persons with albinism in Mozambique need to be strengthened and adequately supported both at the financial and technical levels. It is also fundamental for existing organisations serving persons with albinism to work together in order to achieve their common goals.
The UN sustainable development goals call to leave no one behind. Leaving no one behind also means leaving no person with albinism behind. The cycle of attacks and discrimination must be broken. The momentum achieved by Mozambique ought to continue – and this can be done – even in the face of economic and political challenges.