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When superstition is your biggest enemy: the fight for Albino rights in Tanzania

February 25, 2015

It’s like a scene from a horror film; a 15-year-old girl cleans outdoors when all of a sudden three men show up outside her home. Machetes in hand, they threaten to murder her mother if she cries out for help, leaving her alone and helpless. The men pin the girl down, and hack off her arm below the elbow. They flee the scene on motorcycles, never found or punished.

Superstitious culture in Tanzania leads some to believe that albinos possess powers that bring luck and prosperity. They are attacked for their body parts, for which attackers receive a hefty sum of money on the black market. Credit: Tanzania Albinism Society

One may think this is a description for a film, but there are no lights, no cameras, and no directors involved.  Instead, this is the frightening reality faced by many born with albinism in rural Tanzania.

Superstitious culture in Tanzania leads some to believe that albinos possess powers that bring luck and prosperity. They are attacked for their body parts, for which attackers receive a hefty sum of money on the black market. According to a Red Cross report, one could receive $75,000 for a whole body. Witch doctors also use the body parts to craft charms. It’s gotten to the point where these superstitious beliefs linked to the practices of witch doctors have created a hostile and dangerous living environment.  It’s a reality that no child or parent should have to think possible, but one that many must shield themselves from.

Tanzania is not the only African country that has experienced violence against the albino population. However, due to the prevalence of albinism in Tanzania, the number of attacks in the country are considerably high. One in 1,400 people in Tanzania is  born with albinism, a genetic condition that causes an absence of  skin pigmentation; this  compares to the one in 20,000 worldwide.

The Tanzanian Albinism Society (TAS) has been fighting against these barbaric practices for years. They’ve taken their fight to the highest level, recently finding themselves on the frontline speaking out against witch doctors, including having met personally with the Minister of Home Affairs.

Working in partnership with the TAS, the Tanzanian government announced a ban on witch doctors at the beginning of the year. Severin Edward, a former participant of Equitas’ International Human Rights Training Program [IHRTP] and TAS program coordinator, considers this a victory, but says a lot of work still needs to be done. He believes a lack of education on albinism feeds into this sick mentality.

For Edward, the official ban is only the first step. They must now ensure that it is upheld.

“One of the biggest issues that we have been observing is a lack of political will,” Edward said. “This time, the government needs to show that it is working on these issues.”

Edward believes the next important step is to create a committee of well-educated, partisan, human rights activists. Their role would be to review cases that have been dismissed in the court of law. They must determine if the cases, where the accused  were freed due to lack of evidence, were fair or if there is a need for an appeal.

Living with Albinism in Tanzania

It’s hard to imagine that a lack of melanin in skin could result in such isolation and discrimination. But witch doctors take advantage of superstitious beliefs and behaviour fueled by poverty and desperation.

“For the fisheries, they say it [a charm] will attract more fish during fishing season. In  mining, you’ll get more minerals,” Edward said.

Since 2000, there have been more than 152 gruesome attacks, 74 murders, and only 11 cases seen in court. Out of those cases, only 5 people have been convicted.  There have also been 18 cases of grave robbery. Relatives of those born with albinism often have to take extra measures when burying their loved ones, including adding cement to the grave.

“That means they suffer discrimination not only when they are alive, but even after they’re dead,” Edward said.

Segregation and Exclusion

There are about 700 children [2 to 20 years old] with albinism in centres that we call camps. Parents’ fears increase as attacks increase, so they feel like they need to send their children away,” Edward said.

The centres were originally created to offer education for albinos, many of which are visually impaired. It’s now less about education, and more about keeping young albinos hidden and separate from society.

Edward recently visited one of camps and met people who have been living there since 2009. Understaffed and underfunded, he says the youth barely receive three meals a day, and the health care is very poor.

A lack of melanin in skin increases the risk of skin cancer for those with albinism. In fact, the average life expectancy of someone with albinism in Tanzania is 30 years of age. Aside from aid from NGOs like the TAS, the camps do not have the support needed to provide this essential health care, despite many of them being run by the government.

Human Rights Education

Edward’s involvement in the IHRTP had a very large influence on his work with the TAS. It led him to help shift the function of the TAS from a service delivery group to an advocacy group. He learned the importance of sustainable education, something Equitas strongly believes in. The best way to do so is to engage in dialogue with people in the community, laying a foundation for the next generation to carry the torch.

Local authorities are now learning to budget for the needs of children with albinism. Credit: Tanzania Albinism Society

An example of this is the TAS mobile skin cancer clinics, which they started organizing in 2012. They use these clinics to not only treat people and establish permanent clinics that are sustained by government funding, but to spread awareness about human rights.

“When we go to a certain region to conduct these skin cancer screenings, we involve the government and the local media to increase the consciousness of the right to health,” he said.

Edward says his Equitas training gave him the tools and knowledge to act confidently as a leader in human rights education. He became more familiar with human rights conventions, making it easier for him to challenge Tanzanian officials in the areas where they are lacking.

“The way we define advocacy, we think you have to be against the government. Sometimes yes, but sometimes there is a mutual understanding,” Edward said.   “You may be condemning something, but at the end of the day nothing is happening. If you involve them using evidence based learning and teaching, you will see changes.”

Moving forward

Edward says the changes in the community are visible. For one, local authorities are learning to budget for the needs of children with albinism. This includes sun protection; things as simple as hats and sunscreen. The TAS also worked in collaboration with Canadian NGO Under the Same Sun to influence the government in developing a guideline for teachers that addresses the needs of children with albinism.

For the most part, albinos can live safely and freely in larger cities like Dar es Salaam, so the focus is on transferring this to the rural areas.

As for the ban on witch doctors, he welcomes it with open arms. The next step is to work together as civil society and government to fight corruption in the court and bring justice.

“Bad people in the community are very few compared to good people, so this is something that will give us hope that one day the killings and the attacks will be history.”

By Casandra De Masi, web editor and intern at Equitas

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