South Africa must end discrimination against people with albinism - UN expert

Ikponwosa Ero

Ikponwosa Ero.

Ikponwosa Ero.

The South African government must act urgently to end the dangers faced by people with albinism who face discrimination based on colour, a prohibited ground of racial discrimination, a UN expert said on Friday.

“Although apartheid ended 25 years ago and an inclusive constitution was introduced, people with albinism continue to suffer abuses on a number of grounds including colour and disability,” Ikponwosa Ero said in a statement.

Ero, an expert on the rights of persons with albinism, presented a preliminary statement at the end of her 10-day visit to South Africa.

Stigma and discrimination against people with albinism in South Africa have led to attacks and killings, Ero found during the visit.

Recent victims have been mostly women and children – including Thandizile Mpunzi who was 20 when she was killed in 2015, and a 13-year-old girl killed in 2018.

Both were mutilated and dismembered with their body parts intended for use in ritual practices, according to Ero.

Academic health and genetics surveys estimate a prevalence of around one in 3,900 to one in 4,000 in the country with certain communities having a prevalence rate of one in 832.

Ero welcomed the South African government’s efforts in working toward justice for victims and families but called for more proactive, not just reactive measures.

“For instance, awareness-raising with the participation of genuinely remorseful inmates, while they are serving their sentences, could be a highly effective deterrent,” Ero said.

Trafficking of the body parts of people with albinism across borders also highlights the need for regional action against this scourge, the expert said.

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Ero urged South Africa to show leadership in curbing the scourge.

The expert also expressed concern that people with albinism, a syndrom of genetic disorders that cause the skin, hair, or eyes to have little or no colour, suffered constant ridicule and social exclusion in their own families and in society in general.

“Women are particularly affected by stigma, with many being abandoned by partners and spouses because of ridicule and discrimination or because they gave birth to a child with albinism,” Ero said.

Bullying and insecurity are common for children attending school to the extent that some have resorted to going to special schools because they are often safer than mainstream ones, she said.

As a result of their visual impairment, and a lack of reasonable accommodation for them in school settings, many people with albinism give up on education at an early age.

They are often given low-ranking jobs or work outdoors where they are constantly exposed to the sun, leading to skin cancer – the biggest killer of people with albinism in the region, according to Ero.

“The situation has a damaging cumulative effect on the psychosocial health and self-esteem of many people with albinism, and has resulted in depression, suicidal tendencies and an overall fear of going out in public,” Ero said.

She added that this fear was further compounded by security issues.

Although there is much work to be done in South Africa in eliminating human rights abuses against people with albinism, Ero said.

She was encouraged to see partnerships and cooperation being forged between the government and civil society to work together in the development of a national action plan.

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