Albinism, a rare congenital disorder that presents itself in the form of a partial or complete absence of melanin production, results in pigment-less eyes, hair and skin. An estimated 1 in every 17,000 to 20,000 people in North America and Europe live with albinism. However, cases of albinism in Tanzania and the African continent, with 1 in every 5,000 to 15,000 people, appear with more prevalence.
The majority of cases are seen in the East African country of Tanzania. Under the Same Sun (UTSS), an organization committed to assuring the rights of people with albinism, report a prevalence of 1 in 1,400 cases of albinism and 1 in 19 cases of carriers, meaning there are over 33,000 persons with albinism in Tanzania alone.
This population lives under constant threat, as people with albinism face slaughter and dismemberment. Their body parts, suspected to bring luck or riches, are used in witchcraft. A full “set” of body parts, four limbs, genitals, ears, tongue and nose, can bring the seller upwards of $75,000 in the black market.
There have been eight reported cases of mutilation in Tanzania since autumn 2015. More than 200 similar cases were reported to the United Nations from 2000 to 2013.
In a May 13, 2015 interview with The Guardian, Don Sawatzky, director of operations at UTSS, states that no one really knows the exact source of these killings. Since the documentation was not as historically prevalent in Africa. However, many still connect the rise in deaths to the 2015 elections, placing blame on politicians who allegedly seek out “seers” who use albino body parts to predict the future. Others point to the rise in food prices as the cause, leaving many desperate to make money with no regard for consequence.
Recent collaborative efforts between the Tanzanian government, civil society and nongovernmental organizations have proved beneficial. The community’s perception of people with albinism is slowly changing. Additionally, cases in which people with albinism were killed are now being taken seriously, and the government has begun to prosecute and convict those responsible.
At the community level, these changes will not come about easily, but with the international community’s backing and advocacy, this shift in perception has greater potential.
On June 13, 2013, the United Nations adopted the first resolution in its history on albinism, guaranteeing the rights and acknowledging the plight and discrimination of those who live with albinism. More recently, with the help of UTSS, the United Nations welcomed the observance of June 13 as International Albinism Awareness Day to be celebrated for the first time in 2015.
Many remain hopeful that violence against people with albinism will one day be nonexistent. Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the current United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, affirmed that “people with albinism are just as deserving of dignity as every other human being.” He adds, “They have the right to live free from discrimination, deprivation and fear.”
– Jaime Longoria