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Hunted And Tortured Albinos Grab U.N.'s Attention

David Tobia |
August 26, 2014 | 2:57 p.m. PDT


Albino children in Tanzania are targeted for their body parts (Wikimedia Commons)
Albino children in Tanzania are targeted for their body parts (Wikimedia Commons)

Though most media coverage of African poaching focuses on the buying and selling of African rhinos and elephants, there's another black market that is alive, thriving, and even more disturbing: Albino children are being murdered, chopped up, and sold in pieces. 

The hunting and stigmatization of albinos is particularly a problem in the East African nation Tanzania. There, dozens of albinos have been violently attacked and murdered since June of 2006. Because of superstition, albino body parts can fetch up to $600 for individual parts, and $75,000 for a whole body. 

Rumors across East Africa depict albinos as somewhat mystical creatures. People use their body parts for a variety of purposes, including good luck charms. Fisherman have also used albino hair for nets.

The root of this dangerous superstition is often attributed to "witch doctors," who have convinced people that potions made with albino body parts can accomplish a wide variety of feats - from healing disease, to increasing sexual prowess - because apparently skin without melanin has different healing properties than melanin-rich flesh.

READ MORE: Pictures: Inside The Lives Of Albinos In Tanzania

On Monday, a United Nations official condemned the treatment of albinos in Tanzanian government care centers, where many albino children live. The government moved children to centers in 2009 in an attempt to protect them.

But the centers, which started as a welcome way to protect children, have turned into overcrowded, unhygienic breeding grounds for sexual assault, according to UN human rights office official Alicia Londono. 

“They are really a neglected population, they are not considered in many places as human beings,” Londono explained. 

They’re also not a small population. While albinism only affects one in 20,000 in most of the Western world, one of every 1,400 Tanzanians is affected. Scientist speculate about the cause of a high rate of albinism in Tanzania. One theory points to the stigmatization of the group, as most albinos will marry other albinos, which increases the chance of passing along the trait.

READ MORE: Witch Doctors In East Africa Arrested In Albino Killing

And while attacks occur against all ages of Tanzania’s hundreds of thousands of Albinos, children are especially vulnerable. A 2013 UN report explains how the "witch doctors" who desire the albino body parts sometimes “even believe that the witchcraft ritual is more powerful if the victim screams during the amputation, so body parts are often cut from live victims, especially children. The use of children is likely linked to the pursuit of innocence which, it is believed, enhances the potency of the witchcraft ritual. Moreover, children are more vulnerable to attacks as they are easy to find and capture and do not have the physical strength to fend off attackers.”

This problem is clearly multifaceted and complex: Protecting children from being mutilated and murdered must remain a top priority. However, moving those children to packed, dirty centers where their protectors sexually abuse them is an area that needs to be examined.

Hopefully Tanzania will take the UN’s condemnation seriously and improve the conditions for their chronically underserved population while also working to educate people and eradicate dangerous superstition. 

Reach Contributor David Tobia here or follow him on Twitter.

David Tobia



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