A Canadian organization is planning an education campaign to defend people with albinism in Malawi after a terrifying wave of violent attacks that has killed at least 18 people and left at least five more missing.
People with albinism – a genetic condition that causes a lack of pigmentation in the skin, hair and eyes – have been targeted for abduction and mutilation in many African countries because of superstitions and myths about the magical properties of their body parts.
Under the Same Sun, a Vancouver-based organization founded by a Canadian philanthropist who has albinism, has documented attacks on albino people in 26 countries across Africa in recent years, including 76 murders in Tanzania alone over the past decade.
In Tanzania, an awareness campaign has helped to reduce the murders. But the wave of kill-ings in Malawi over the past 20 months has sparked new alarm. "It's a large number of killings in a short period of time," said Peter Ash, founder of Under the Same Sun.
"It's unprecedented, except for Tanzania," Mr. Ash said in an interview. "It hearkens back to the early days of killings in Tanzania. It's disheartening. You make progress in one country and then it erupts in another country."
The attacks are targeting a relatively tiny population: an estimated 7,000 to 10,000 people in Malawi have albinism. Some are even abducted and sold by close family members, according to a new report by Amnesty International. Many of the victims are children, and their bodies are often recovered with their arms and legs cut off.
Many people in Malawi believe that the body parts of albino people can bring good luck and business success. There are rumours that vast sums can be obtained by selling their bones.
"Abductions, killings, mutilations and exhumations of graves have created a climate of fear among people with albinism," Amnesty said in the report to be released on Tuesday.
"Societal misunderstanding of albinism in Malawi has endangered the lives of this population group. It has created insecurity and widespread discrimination. In everyday life, people with albinism are frequently treated as less than human."
Despite promises of action by senior government officials, the violent attacks have intensified this year, Amnesty said in the report.
Mr. Ash said the Malawi situation is an emergency that requires an urgent response. His group is planning to send a team of experts to Malawi to try to dispel the myths about people with albinism. It aims to hold training seminars for police, community leaders, social workers, religious leaders and activists.
"There are all the same myths and wrong beliefs that existed in Tanzania," Mr. Ash said. "We think some of this is moving across borders between Tanzania, Malawi and Mozambique. The borders are quite porous."
But the persecution of people with albinism is also fuelled by economic conditions.
Malawi is one of the world's poorest countries, and its economy has worsened in recent years because of drought, inflation, a deteriorating currency and a cutoff in Western donor support after a government corruption scandal.
"The extreme deprivation facing communities and the belief that the body parts of people with albinism can be sold for large sums of money is, according to activists working with people with albinism, a contributing factor to the increase in crimes targeting this population," the Amnesty report said.
Some perpetrators have been arrested and convicted, but most of the crimes have remained unresolved, and the relatively light penalties have created a sense of impunity, Amnesty said.
"Poor police investigations may have also allowed perpetrators of murders to avoid facing serious charges, particularly in cases where suspects were arrested in possession of human bones."