Nathan Birhanu is an intern for the Council on Foreign Relations Africa Studies program. He is a graduate of Fordham University’s Graduate Program in International Political Economy & Development.
Albinism is a hereditary condition from birth where an individual, partially or completely, lacks pigmentation in the skin, hair, and eyes. The condition is found in one in every 20,000 people globally. The topic of albinism is of importance in sub-Saharan Africa where rates can reach as high as one in 1,400 people because of a variety of factors.
June 13 was International Albinism Awareness Day, enacted by the UN to bring special attention to security and cultural challenges faced by people with albinism. In rural areas of Eastern and Southern Africa, the bodies of people with albinism are thought to have magical or special properties; in some areas their body parts are sought after for traditional medicine or ritualistic practices. This has caused attacks, deaths, kidnappings, and threats against the group. Due to being conspicuous in their communities, people with albinism also face cultural issues where many are shunned because of the lack of understanding of the genetic basis of the condition: they experience social isolation, fears of contagion, and discrimination.
Governments have attempted to address these challenges. On May 31, South Africa’s Deputy Minister of Arts and Culture Rejoice Thizwilondi delivered a speech, stating, “The awareness campaign about the attacks, stigma, and discrimination experienced by people with albinism... presents all Africans with a platform to reflect the violation of the people with albinism. Africa should rise against the inhumane treatment meted out to our brothers and sisters.”
South Africa’s awareness campaigns over the years have resulted in greater understanding and protection of people with albinism. However, Malawi and Tanzania struggle to curb anti-albinism sentiment and violence. Malawi and Tanzania have enacted laws or taken action to deter assaults or discrimination against albinism, but it is an uphill challenge. Economic hardships, the media’s inaccurate portrayal of people with albinism, and the lack of in-depth studies of albinism compound the problem.
During an interview, Ikponwosa Ero, the first independent expert on albinism appointed by the UN Human Rights Council, states, “There is a lack of understanding about people with albinism, not only in developing countries but also in developed nations . . . So when you bring in this lack of knowledge in the context of poverty, witchcraft beliefs, and economic factors, you get a dangerous combination. This is what has led to this current situation.”
Governments find it difficult to allocate resources to fight discrimination against albinism because of competing demands; individuals of the demographic are relatively few. Ero also goes on to explain the delicate balance of conducting albinism awareness campaigns to deter attacks without simultaneously perpetuating the image of African tropes of witchcraft and magical rituals.
The media has a central role in fighting anti-albinism attitudes by bringing the topic to light but without propagating stereotypes or spreading erroneous information. The Malawi Health Equity Network has pleaded with their media to stop reports of albinism bodies being sold on the rationale that the reports are promoting a demand that is not actually present. Such ambiguity is one of the main reasons Ero says: “There is a set of perplexing themes going on here. And this is why I say an in-depth study is really needed.”
Nevertheless, there have been strides in fighting discrimination against people with albinism, thanks to the efforts by government, civil society, and aid agencies. South Africa’s awareness campaigns show what is possible.