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Woman Who Was Attacked for Having Albinism Will Climb Mount Kilimanjaro

By Emma Batha

LONDON, July 26 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — A woman with albinism whose arms were hacked off as she slept with her young son is to climb Africa's highest mountain to raise awareness of the abuse and violence faced by people with the condition.

Mariamu Staford will join five other African women with albinism in September to conquer Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, which rises nearly 6,000 metres (20,000 feet) above sea level.

People with albinism — a lack of pigmentation in the skin, hair, and eyes — are frequently shunned and attacked in Africa.

Take Action: Call on African Leaders to Make Health a Priority

In some countries, they are targetted for their body parts which are prized in witchcraft for use in lucky charms and magical potions.

Expedition co-leader Jane Waithera said the climb would provide "a platform to amplify our voices from Africa's highest peak ... as symbols of resilience and empowerment".

Staford, 38, was attacked in 2008 when men armed with machetes broke into her house in Tanzania's Lake District as she lay with her 2-year-old son.

Read More: Tanzanian Court Sentenced Six to Prison for Cutting Off the Hand of Albino Boy

After being fitted with prosthetics, she learnt to operate a knitting machine and runs a clothes business. Although she has identified her attackers no one has been brought to justice.

"She is totally a true inspiration. She is the face of resilience," Waithera told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Nairobi.

Hundreds of attacks and killings have been reported across the continent in recent years with body parts reported to fetch tens of thousands of dollars in an underground trade centred on Tanzania, Malawi, and Mozambique.

Read More: 6 Malawi People With Albinism Are Running for Office to Fight Stigma

Waithera said women with albinism were also targets of sexual violence because of a myth that sex with a woman with albinism could cure HIV/AIDS.

The team, led by mountaineer and filmmaker Elia Saikaly, will use social media during the seven-day expedition to talk about the challenges they face in life.

"The biggest barrier of course is the stigma that starts from the day you are born," said Waithera, who was abandoned by her mother as a baby and bullied as a child.

Read More: Albino Children in Tanzania — Hunted for Their Body Parts — Get Help in US

Albinism, which affects an estimated one in 15,000 sub-Saharan Africans, increases the risk of sight problems and skin cancer.

All the women taking part are legally blind. They will each have a guide and wear special eye protection.

Waithera, 31, said the team, which also includes a Senegalese musician and Nigerian optometrist, were the strongest women she had ever met.

"We need to let society know that there is no difference between us and them," she added. "I think we are really going to change mindsets. It's about time."

(Reporting by Emma Batha, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.)