Are People with Albinism Humans or Ghosts?

Independent Expert on Albinism Ikponwosa Ero. Photo: OHCHR / Christine Wambaa
Independent Expert on Albinism Ikponwosa Ero. Photo: OHCHR / Christine Wambaa

People with albinism are being hunted for witchcraft rituals, their body parts hacked off with machetes, and even having their graves desecrated, a United Nations expert warned Tuesday in her first report to the UN Human Rights Council.

“Dangerous myths feed these attacks on innocent people: many erroneously believe people with albinism are not human beings, but are ghosts or subhuman and cannot die but only disappear,” said Ikponwosa Ero, an independent expert on the enjoyment of human rights by persons with albinism. “Tragically many believe the condition is a curse.”

Albinism is a genetic condition characterized by a deficit in the production in melanin and by the partial or complete absence of pigment in the skin, hair, and eyes.

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Since Ms. Ero assumed her duties eight months ago, there have been reports of 40 attacks across seven countries. She says that represents just a fraction of the total as most are secretive rituals in rural areas that are never reported; some even involve the victims’ own family members being complicit.

Albinism is a non-contagious, genetically inherited condition affecting people worldwide. In some areas it can affect as many as 1 in 70 people, although in general 1 in 5000 to 1 in 20,000 are affected. It requires both parents to carry the gene.

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According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), “a lucrative and macabre market” has emerged in the body parts of people with albinism being traded for use in witchcraft rituals, potions or amulets, with reported prices ranging from $2,000 for a limb to $75,000 for a ‘complete set’ or corpse.

There are reports of victims being dismembered while still alive – their fingers, arms, legs, eyes, genitals, skin, bones, head and hair hacked off. Many involved in these crimes believe that the body parts being used for potions will be more effective the more the victim screams.

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In her report, the independent expert presented a plan to spearhead the identification of root causes of attacks. “This will include careful understanding, definition and delineation of witchcraft practice, the form it takes and the effects it has on persons with albinism,” she stated.

“Effective measures to end attacks will include plans to fast track immediate investigation of allegations and prosecution of alleged perpetrators; appropriate legal, social, psychological and medical remedy and redress for victims; actions to prevent trafficking in body parts, as well as measures for the safe re-integration of displaced persons with albinism,” she added.

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Ms. Ero further noted in her report that “while discrimination based on skin colour is an everyday reality for most persons with albinism, discourse on discrimination based on colour has rarely been applied to albinism,” explaining that it has tended to focus on race or ethnicity.

Children also make up a large proportion of the victims, not least because of another traditional belief that the more innocent a victim is the more potent his or her body parts will be for the potion.

Meanwhile, OHCHR underlined that thousands of people with albinism are being subjected to stigma and discrimination around the world and the violations are met with passivity and indifference. This ranges from bullying at school to more extreme manifestations such as infanticide, physical threats and attacks.

Women with albinism are reportedly the victims of targeted sexual assaults because of a myth that sex with them can cure HIV/AIDS. Mothers are ostracized or discriminated against if they give birth to a child with albinism because it’s seen as the result of a curse, a bad omen or of infidelity.

There are also serious health implications of albinism, in particular the vulnerability to skin cancer. Some reports from Africa suggest most people with albinism die between the ages of 30 and 40 years.

In many cases the risks could be reduced with greater understanding; OHCHR reports that it is not uncommon for parents to put a newborn with albinism out in the sun for hours or for adults with albinism to spend their days in the sun without using sun protection cream or protective clothing.

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