Blantyre - A United Nations human rights expert has described Malawians living with albinism as "an endangered group facing a risk of systemic extinction over time if nothing is done".
"Persons with albinism, and parents of children with albinism, constantly live in fear of attack," said Ikponwosa Ero, the UN independent expert on the rights of persons with albinism, at the end of her visit to Malawi.
Ero, in a statement released on Friday, observed that many people living with albinism did not sleep peacefully and had deliberately restricted their movement to the minimum to avoid falling prey to the abductors and killers.
"The frequent involvement of close relatives in cases of attacks is highly disturbing, and persons with albinism are unable to trust even those who are supposed to care for and protect them. Consequently, persons with albinism in the current context of attacks are locked in a spiral of fear and poverty," she said.
Ero described the situation in Malawi as "an emergency and a crisis disturbing in its proportions".
Police in Malawi have recorded 65 cases of albino abductions since late 2014. The number of people with albinism is around 10 000 out of the country’s estimated population of 17 million.
About 20 people living with albinism have been killed so far, the latest case being that of a girl whose uncle played a role in facilitating her abduction and eventual killing.
A court in Malawi’s rural district of Dowa on Thursday sentenced the uncle (Gerald Phiri) and his accomplice to 17 years imprisonment for aiding in the abduction of the 21-year-old Eneless Nkhata, who was later found murdered.
The sentence is a landmark as it is the most severe delivered so far in cases relating to albino abductions and killings that are haunting Malawi.
The stiff sentence comes after Association of People with Albinism in Malawi (Apam) protested a four-year jail term given by another court recently to two men who attempted to abduct and murder a 4-year-old child with albinism.
Ero said the fight should go beyond stiff punishments, as "addressing the root causes of attacks, in particular why they are happening, is indispensable to eradicating them. It is worrying to note that witchcraft beliefs and practices are widespread in Malawi, although often a taboo topic.”
Malawi Information Minister Patricia Kaliati has lambasted some witchdoctors for perpetrating the killings.
"Some witchdoctors are fuelling the atrocities. We will take the battle against the abductions and the killings to their doorstep, even if it means stopping some of them from practising their trade. That is our serious warning," she said.