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Albinism Awareness Month – an opportunity to debunk harmful myths

People living with albinism in southern Africa fear for their lives. Many are killed for their body parts, which are then used in rituals. Stan Muyebe OP calls on government to enact legislation that deliberately cracks down on the ritual killings of people living with albinism, and further urges parishes to use Albinism Awareness Month to create awareness and debunk the myths that encourage violence.

September is Albinism Awareness Month. At the moment, the nation is focused on gender based and xenophobic violence. While these issues should continue to command urgent action and massive public attention, the human rights abuses against people living with albinism also cannot be forgotten.

A life of fear and stigma

South Africans living with albinism are among the most marginalised categories of citizens, especially in schools and workplaces. Every day they are stigmatised to the extent that it curtails their right to equal access to educational and economic opportunities. People with albinism also live in constant fear of becoming the targets of violent attacks, including ritual killings and amputation, which are fuelled by deeply entrenched cultural myths and greed.

In some cultural traditions, there is a belief that the body parts of people with albinism possess magical powers that can make someone rich. A body part of a person with albinism  can bring several thousand rand on the black market. In other traditions, there is a belief that people living with albinism are trapped spirits, or izithunzela (zombies) and iziporho (ghosts), who bring bad luck to communities.

People with albinism live in perpetual fear that they could become a victim of ritual killings.

There is also a myth that having sex with a person living with albinism can cure HIV/Aids. This makes them vulnerable to rape.

As a result of all these harmful cultural beliefs people living with albinism live in perpetual fear that they could become a victim of ritual killings. This is particularly true in some parts of KwaZulu-Natal (especially the area close to the Mozambican border), Mpumalanga, Limpopo and Eastern Cape.

Insufficient attention given to challenges of albinism

There is not much policy conversation or public outcry about the human rights situation of people living with albinism in South Africa. This is partly because the violence in South Africa has not reached the levels of other African countries, where 150 people with albinism have been killed since 2014 in Malawi, DRC, Mozambique, Tanzania and Kenya. The high incidences of ritual killings have resulted in public outcry and comprehensive policy responses.

At the moment, there are no credible or accurate statistics on the numbers of ritual killings in South Africa.

… 150 people with albinism have been killed since 2014 in Malawi, DRC, Mozambique, Tanzania and Kenya.

Over the years, there have been a number of criminal convictions. In 2015 two teenagers were found guilty in the Vryheid Regional Court of murdering of Thandazile Mpunzi, a 20-year-old woman. They confessed that they killed Mpunzi for body parts after a sangoma told them these would be used in a ritual to make them rich.

In 2016, a 28 -year -old woman was arrested for kidnapping a 4 year old body with albinism in Empangeni in KwaZulu-Natal. The woman confessed that she planned to sell the child for R100,000 to a traditional healer in Emanguzi. A teacher was recently convicted in Mpumalanga after confessing to kidnapping and killing a girl with albinism in January 2018 for ritual purposes.

The conviction rates on the ritual killings of persons with albinism do not paint a comprehensive picture of the extent of ritual killings. According to Amnesty International, the code of silence around the ritual killings of people living with albinism means that incidents often go unreported and undocumented. Nevertheless, the rate of criminal convictions of perpetrators of ritual killings suggest that there is a worrying increase in the ritual killings of the people living with albinism.

Further action needed

The South African government has not done enough to protect the rights of these people. It is yet to finalise the establishment of a system for comprehensive data collection on human rights violations perpetrated against them. Without statistics, it becomes difficult to ascertain the prevalence of ritual killings and rape of people with albinism and identify measures to put an end to these crimes.

The 2013 Ekurhuleni Declaration on the Rights of Persons with Albinism called on the South African Human Rights Commission to launch a national investigation into human rights violations against persons with albinism. This is yet to be implemented comprehensively.

Some activists have also called for specific legislation directed at criminalising violence and discrimination against persons within albinism, including criminalising the trade and trafficking of body parts, infanticide, abandonment of children with albinism, and ritual murders. Government has indicated that the current legislation is sufficiently comprehensive to handle violent crimes directed at persons with albinism.

The UN Independent Expert on the Enjoyment of Human Rights for Persons with Albinism is visiting South Africa from 16 to 26 September on a fact finding mission. This is a unique opportunity for organisations representing people living with albinism to exert pressure on the Department of Social Development to finalise and implement the National Strategy and Programme of Action on Albinism.

Parishes and dioceses can use Albinism Awareness Month to dedicate one Sunday to talk about albinism.

Ultimately, protection against the human rights violations of people with albinism requires joint and coordinated response involving government, religious organisations, traditional leaders, chapter 9 institutions, and albinism organisations. Certainly, the Church can play a pivotal role in creating awareness about the biological condition of albinism and debunking the myths and misperceptions that give rise to violence against them.

Parishes and dioceses can use Albinism Awareness Month to dedicate one Sunday to talk about albinism and the need to abolish practices that are contrary to the Church’s teachings on the sanctity of human life. All human beings, including persons with albinism, are made in the image and likeness of God.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.