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INTERVIEW-Businessman hopes to become Malawi's first MP with albinism

by Charles Pensulo | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 17 May 2019 14:27 GMT

Steve Burges speaks at at a political debate in Zomba city, southern Malawi on May 2, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Leah Malimbasa

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Malawi is one of the most dangerous countries for people with albinism, whose body parts can fetch high sums

By Charles Pensulo

BLANTYRE, May 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A Malawian businessman hoping to become the country's first lawmaker with albinism has called for a major drive to tackle rampant violence against people with the condition amid a spate of murders, mutilations and abductions linked to black magic.

Steve Burges, 36, said Malawi's army and police should recruit people with albinism to help stamp out an underground trade in albino body parts fuelled by beliefs that they bring prosperity.

"Every day is a dangerous day for people with albinism in Malawi," Burges told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from the southern city of Zomba where he is standing.

"It's terrible to watch my fellow brothers and sisters being attacked. We need to end this now."

The businessman, who is standing for the opposition Malawi Congress Party in Tuesday's election, also called for a public education campaign to destigmatise albinism similar to awareness drives on HIV/AIDS and Ebola.

Malawi is one of the most dangerous countries for people with albinism, whose body parts can fetch high sums.

There have been more than 160 recorded attacks including 22 murders since November 2014, according to human rights group Amnesty International.

"If people with albinism can be included in public services like the army and the police, they will be better placed to help in investigating cases and indeed tracing the markets for albino parts," Burges said.

"I have seen members of the police and army with albinism in countries like South Africa and Zimbabwe. I think that makes a lot of difference."

Malawi is home to up to 10,000 people with albinism - a lack of pigmentation in the skin, hair and eyes. A U.N. expert on albinism has said they risk "extinction" due to the attacks.

Burges is among six people with albinism running for office in a bid to tackle the stigma and violence. Two are standing for parliament and four for local government.

The businessman said he had faced discrimination while campaigning.

"I've heard from some candidates saying, 'Should you vote for him because he is living with albinism?' yet I've done a lot of development (work) in the area," Burges said.

Steve Burges addresses a rally in in Zomba city, southern Malawi, May 6, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Leah Malimbasa


Safety concerns have been high in the run-up to the elections amid fears some candidates may seek out lucky charms to boost their chances.

The government has denied accusations by human rights groups and the Malawi Congress Party that it is doing little to stop the killings.

It announced this month it would issue 1,600 personal security alarms to people with albinism, linking them to police stations.

But the Association of Persons with Albinism in Malawi said some people had refused the gadgets because they were branded with the initials of President Peter Mutharika.

Earlier this month, a court sentenced a man to death for killing a teenager with albinism.

The judge said the killings and abductions had tainted Malawi's international image and reduced the country to "a state of terror".

In another trial under way in Malawi, a priest, police officer and doctor are among 12 defendants accused of murdering a 22-year-old man with albinism a year ago.

But successful prosecutions are rare.

Amnesty called this week for Malawi to overhaul its criminal justice system, saying it had repeatedly failed victims of attacks.

It said suspects were often released due to flawed investigations and prosecutors needed better training.

"The impunity must stop," Amnesty's regional director Deprose Muchena said.

(Writing by Emma Batha @emmabatha; Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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