I visited Malawi in April this year at the request of the government to assess the situation of persons with albinism in the country. The results of my findings were grim.
Malawi is confronted with a situation of emergency, a crisis. Persons with albinism in Malawi are being attacked, abducted and killed. The graves of the deceased are also robbed. As a result of this harsh context, children drop out of school to remain under the protection of their parents, many persons with albinism restrict their movement to the bare minimum, and are, therefore, unable to attend to their crops or go to the market.
Often, parents stay home to protect their children with albinism. As a result, families of persons with albinism, often already marginalised, are driven from poverty into dire straits. Further, deep discrimination in the family, community, education and health, particularly the lack of available and affordable skin cancer prevention measures, are also in need of urgent attention.
The recent creation of a committee to address the emergency is a very good first step. Its multi-sectoral nature, comprising the Office of the President and Cabinet and the Ministry of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare, is commendable as it lays the ground work for immediate and long-term responses to the issue.
The success of the committee will hinge on its access to adequate resources, its strong coordination of efforts and deep consultation with persons with albinism themselves.
It is encouraging that the mandate of the committee aligns well with several recommendations I presented to the government at the end of my visit. Prevention of attacks is critical. Support for the police is key to ensuring that increased patrols in the affected areas are conducted.
Since the insecurity of persons with albinism is worsened by poor living conditions, strong, practical and resulted-oriented interventions are needed as a matter of urgency such as wooden doors and locks, as well as cell phones and whistles.
Providing cement to lay over graves could also prevent robberies of body parts of the deceased. Victims of the attacks need support.
Psycho-social counselling as well as socio-economic support to the victim and their families is necessary to help them regain productive lives and restore their dignity.
The recent declaration of the President of the Traditional Healers Association of Malawi condemning attacks of persons with albinism is also encouraging. That said, strong and effective oversight over the profession, through registration and licensing, for example, should be considered as soon as possible.
Strategies to uphold the human rights of persons with albinism must be firmly grounded in international human rights law. This includes the right to fair trial for both victim and the accused.
Anyone accused of these crimes also has the right to know the criminal charges brought before them, the evidence on which such criminal charges are based, and the right to a lawyer, among other rights. The last thing we want is to punish the innocent when the guilty still roam free.
Further, I stand with the United Nations (UN) secretary general Ban Ki-moon that “the death penalty has no place in the 21st century”. There are so many problems with this punishment that it has been abolished in law or practice, in 78 percent of African countries, including Malawi.
This month, representatives from the Malawi government and civil society will be present at a stakeholders’ forum which I am organising in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. This will be an opportunity to meet with representatives of other countries from the region facing similar problems and to begin the process of developing specific measures in response to the crisis.
It is my ardent hope that this forum will be the beginning of effective and sustainable results for all human lives at stake. I look forward to continued work with Malawi at this forum and in all possible avenues.