By Dr Joan Nyanyuki
The horror of witchcraft accusations and ritual abuse against girls and boys across the continent is again rearing its ugly head – and none are more at risk than children with albinism. Fuelled by discrimination and stigmatisation, Africa continues to witness horrific cases of abuse, ill-treatment, abduction, mutilation of body parts and even murder of persons with albinism.
Every year, thousands of children in Africa face accusations of witchcraft and suffer abuse and attacks, yet these crimes remain “hidden in plain sight”. Children with albinism are at much higher risk.
The UN reports hundreds of cases of attacks and killings of persons with albinism in 28 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa in the past decade. In spite of these horrifying reports, many African governments shun their obligations as signatories to the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
I have no wish to criticise the beliefs that underpin traditional African healing or religious practices. Witchcraft is deeply rooted in many sub-Saharan African cultures and communities, and is a powerful influence in the daily lives of millions of people.
In some countries, witchcraft and traditional healing are inter-linked and deeply valued, almost held sacred. But when those beliefs and values are turned into unspeakable physical and psychological violence against children who are different, especially those with albinism, we have to speak out.
This week’s UN International Albinism Awareness Day highlighted the need for us all to stand in solidarity with people with albinism, but recent research from the African Child Policy Forum suggests that African governments routinely fail to protect children with albinism.
We also found that ritual attacks on children with albinism are often motivated by greed, a desire for power or a mistaken belief that their body parts can stave off ancestral wrath and cure everything from male impotency to poverty and bring victory, even in elections or disputes.
Girls with albinism and mothers who give birth to children with albinism suffer extreme violence, including hacking off their genitals, arms and legs while still alive.
Frequently, these attacks are motivated by mistaken beliefs of their power when used in so-called “magical medicines” or their supposed value in a lucrative market for body parts of persons with albinism. Even with this gloomy picture, I am encouraged by the few visible signs of progress.
Earlier this year the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution condemning accusations of witchcraft, rituals and other harmful traditions that result in human rights violations. Thanks to the concerted efforts of international NGOs, African civil society organisations and the UN Independent Expert on the Enjoyment of Human Rights by Persons with Albinism, the AU has introduced a five-year Plan of Action on Albinism and has resolved to appoint a Special Envoy on Albinism to oversee its implementation.
The Pan-African Parliament recently developed the first-ever guidelines for ending harmful practices related to accusations of witchcraft and ritual attacks. Some African countries, too, are taking the issue seriously.
In Malawi, new laws and concerted government action, at a community level and in the courts, resulted in attacks on people with albinism declining from 60 in 2016 to just four in 2021.
* Nyanyuki is executive director of the African Child Policy Forum, a pan-African organisation of policy research and advocacy on the African child.