Malawi: People with albinism ‘living in fear’

Rights group bemoans slow pace of justice after attacks, including murders, leaving those with albinism feel vulnerable.

malawi news story
Amnesty International says there have been at least 115 attacks on persons with albinism since 2015 [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

Malawi’s refusal to push forward with prosecuting suspects accused of attacking and killing people with albinism has left a persecuted minority on the edge, according to the Association of Persons with Albinism in Malawi (APAM).

Boniface Massah, national coordinator of APAM, told Al Jazeera on Wednesday that the government’s failure to conclude cases demonstrates that “security has not improved”, leaving the estimated 10,000-strong community vulnerable and anxious.  

“We face a high risk of attack and we have seen government commitment in words, but not in action,” Massah said.

Albinism is a genetically inherited condition. It often results in the lack of pigmentation in the skin, hair and eyes.

Since late 2014, human rights organisations noted a rise in attacks on persons with albinism in Malawi.

The attacks stem from a belief that body parts belonging to people with albinism contain magical powers.

Read the full story: Killed for their bones: On the trail of the trade in human body parts

Criminals, allegedly members of gangs across southern and central Africa, have abducted scores of people with albinism, hoping to sell their body parts on the black market.

Amnesty International, the UK-based rights group, says there have been at least 115 attacks, including 20 murders, since 2015.

At least 35 cases have been prosecuted, while 43 others are under investigation. No murder cases have been concluded.

Massah said that the lack of punitive action had left people with albinism feel “very vulnerable”.

“Students have not returned to school, adults are avoiding going to work, and restricting their movement and this is impacting their livelihoods,” Massah said.

Responding to claims that action remained slow, Nicholas Dausi, Malawi’s minister of information, told Al Jazeera that his government was aware of the shortcomings but said that there had been a reduction in crimes against those with albinism. 

“As a government, we are saying that we are committed, and asking people to come forward and assist us,” Dausi said. 

“If there is anybody who feels that the justice is not served, they should come forward,” he added. 

Deprose Muchena, director of Amnesty International Southern Africa, confirmed that the government had shown commitment to addressing the scourge, but added that the community “was still living in fear”.

“This year, there were five attacks, including two murders … the fact that one of the murders took place in Lilongwe itself is very daring because usually these attacks happen in isolated, rural areas,” Muchena said.

“The government needs to speed up cases.The lack of action energises attacks,” he said 

Still shaken

Clement Gweza, a teacher in Dedza in central Malawi, told Al Jazeera that he is still shaken by the murder of his pupil David Fletcher back in April 2016.

Fletcher had been abducted from the village and found days later, murdered and dismembered in neighbouring Mozambique.

“I tell Latida [another pupil with albinism in his school] not to travel alone, and I also take special care at night, because I know these people are looking for us,” Gweza said, ading that the community suffers “widespread societal discrimination, including verbal abuse and exclusion from accessing basic public services”.

Experts say that people with albinism also endured discrimination at schools and hospitals.

In June 2016, the situation was deemed so bad that Ikponwosa Ero, a United Nations independent expert on human rights and albinism, said that the community faced systematic extinction if action was not taken.

Source: Al Jazeera