Why albinos are being killed in Malawi, and what's being done to stop it

The past year has seen a surge in the killings and abductions of albinos, spurring nationwide conversation on what must be done to stop the attacks. 

Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP/File
Cassim Jaffalie, 3, stands with his friends at their family home in this Monday, May, 23, 2016 photo in Machinga, about 200 kilometres north east of Blantyre, Malawi. His father Razik Jaffalie gave up his work as a bicycle taxi operator to protect his son in a country where there has been an increase in albinism attacks.

Albinos living in Malawi have faced a "sharp increase" in abductions, killings, and grave robberies over the past year and a half, according to an Amnesty International report released Tuesday. 

The report noted that out of the country's approximately 10,000 citizens with albinism, at least 18 people have been killed since November 2014, and at least five have been abducted and remain missing. In total, 69 cases involving people with albinism were reported to the Malawi Police Service over that timespan.

The Amnesty report also concluded that albinos living in Malawi face "stigmatization and other insurmountable barriers to the full enjoyment of their economic, social, cultural, civil, and political rights."

Violent crimes against albinos are typically committed by individuals or criminal gangs driven by the belief that albino body parts can bring wealth, happiness and good luck. It is common for attackers, many of whom live in poverty and have low levels of literacy, to sell their victims' limbs to witchdoctors for use in charms and magical potions. 

In April, Ikponwosa Ero, a United Nations expert on the rights of persons with albinism, declared albinos in Malawi "an endangered people group facing a risk of systemic extinction over time if nothing is done." She described the situation as "an emergency, a crisis disturbing in its proportions," adding that "an urgent and coordinated response from the Government, civil society and development partners working in strong partnership with each other is required."

Both Ms. Ero and the recent Amnesty International report called for a stronger response from the Malawi police forces and criminal justice system, with the report alleging that the police lack the proper training and skills to investigate these crimes and suggesting that "some police officers carry the same prejudices against people with albinism that exists within the wider Malawian society."

The lack of adequate police protection for albinos is due to understaffing, Isaac Maluwa, the officer in charge of the Machinga district, told the Associated Press.

"In rural areas where these attacks are rampant, we do not have enough police officers," Mr. Maluwa explained.

Malawi's minister of information, Patricia Kaliati, responded to the report in an interview with Al Jazeera, saying that the Malawi government is "doing everything possible to protect this community...For Amnesty to suggest we are doing nothing is not helpful and not fair." 

President Peter Mutharika recently established a special legal counsel to investigate the matter after activists staged a protest in the streets and presented parliament with a petition that called for stricter penalties for those who commit violent crimes against albinos. Amnesty International reported, however, that the president's committee and recent adoption of a National Response Plan have "failed to stop the violence," as "the majority of crimes remain unresolved."

While Malawi has seen a recent surge in attacks, it is not the only country to have faced this issue. Violence against albinos has also historically been common in other African nations, such as neighboring Tanzania. Last year, the Tanzanian government formed a tripartite committee that included government officials, people with albinism, and witch doctors believed to have a hand in albino killings in an attempt to combat violent crimes against people with albinism. 

"It's my dream in my life that people with albinism are respected and given all rights which other human beings are being given," Tanzanian albino activist Josephat Torner said in an interview with CNN. "This is what is in my heart – when I would see justice to people with albinism; when I would see the lifespan of people with albinism is increasing, this is still a dream to my life."

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