Vancouver-Based Charity Speaks on Witchcraft and Human Rights at the UN

Nearly 10 years after its inception, the charity is now globally recognized for its advocacy work and founder Peter Ash is bringing the topic of witchcraft to the table at the Geneva Convention.

 Mariam was born with white skin.Her mother instantly thought something was wrong, and shortly after giving birth tried to scrub her newborn’s skin with hot washcloths to bring the colour back. Instead, Mariam turned bright red. She has albinism, a condition characterized by the absence of pigment, which is far more common in Tanzania where it affects nearly one in 1,400 people.Peter Ash was born with the same condition, although it’s far less common in North America. He has an older brother with the same condition and his parents never treated him differently, but at school he was frequently teased. “I had to grow a tough skin. I got used to being treated as odd or different,” he says.Ash is the founder of the Vancouver Christian-faith-based charity Under the Same Sun, which provides education and engages in advocacy and human rights work. He established the organization in 2009 and it has since grown from a struggling organization to one with global recognition. Nearly 10 years on, Ash and Mariam both attended the Geneva Convention for the Witchcraft and Human Rights Experts’ Workshop last month to speak on a panel about witchcraft, an issue the United Nations has never tackled before, which brings an awareness with it.“It’s one of the issues people in the western world don’t really understand it, so we’re trying to get it on the table and get it exposed,” says Ash. Although this wasn’t his first time speaking before the UN, he persisted for months to have his cause recognized before garnering a meeting with Unicef in 2009, and only after a change in staff did anyone show an interest. He then appealed to the human right’s council in Geneva to do a seminar on human rights and albinism and registered UTSS with the United Nations.In Dar es Salaam where Mariam lives, people with albinism are often shunned from their communities and are at risk of being attacked. There’s a widespread misconception that they possess magical properties, and their body parts can fetch thousands of dollars on the black market. Ash read about the gruesome attacks in July 2008 in an article by Vicky Ntetema, a BBC journalist who went undercover in Tanzania to expose the witchdoctors behind the attacks. “It really punched me,” Ash says. Having grown up with the condition, struggling in school due to his poor vision and being taunted by his peers, he determined to offer his support.Two months later he traveled to Tanzania with the idea of financially backing a support group in the country, but realized that there were no well-established groups that could provide education or conduct human right’s advocacy. Around the same time as UTSS was launched, they sought out Mariam after hearing of her attack.On October 10, 2008 shortly after midnight, a group of men broke into the house where Mariam lived with her family. They locked her parents’ bedroom door, and four of them came into Mariam’s room where they amputated her right hand and part of her left before the neighbours heard her screaming and came running over. Six of the assailants were caught. She only got to a hospital 11 hours later, where she spent the next five months in recovery.Under UTSS’s protection, Mariam learned to read and write and was put through a vocational course where she learned to make scarves and sweaters, and now she own a little workshop in Dar es Salaam where she sells her wares. The charity also runs a private education program for children, most of who are orphans or who have been abandoned. Over 400 students have already entered the program since it began in 2010. 85 have graduated and over 80 percent of them have gone onto higher education and into job placements, “and we believe that if people with albinism can get educated and employed it will change the face of albinism in the country,” says Ash.Mariam is one of several people with albinism that has been brought to Vancouver or the United States to receive medical treatment following her attack. After receiving a set of prosthetics in the United States that she had outgrown, she came to Vancouver last year to have them refitted by Dana Senenki-Rousseau at Pentland’s Prosthetics and Orthotics.In nearly a decade that UTSS has been tracking the number of attacks that have occurred, in the last two to three years they’ve seen a gradual decrease. Recently, a Tanzanian court handed down 20-year sentences each to six men charged with severing a boy’s left hand, but to this day, 90 percent of attacks on people with albinism in Tanzania still haven’t been prosecuted.