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What it means for Rwanda to have banned skin bleaching creams

TextCharlie Brinkhurst-Cuff

With the ability to damage your insides and burn your skin, skin bleaching creams can be seriously dangerous. Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff speaks to one woman whose call for a ban was heard by the country's president

Rwanda has become the first East African nation to ban skin bleaching creams, with the government sending out a task force which has seized over 5,000 products – some of which have the ability to damage your insides and scar and burn your skin.

Mercury and hydroquinone, found in illegal skin bleaching creams worldwide, can have a toxic effect on the nervous, digestive and immune systems, and on the lungs, kidneys, skin and eyes. They can also permanently destroy melanin.

In November, Rwanda’s president weighed in on a Twitter discussion, stating that skin bleaching, known as “mukorogo” in Rwanda, was “Quite unhealthy among other things. Includes use of prohibited chemicals. MoH [Ministry of Health] and RNP [Rwanda National Police] need to rein this in very quickly...!” The government has now started to send officials around the country to enforce the ban and patrol markets where products might be sold.

Fiona Kamikazi, a communications specialist and social activist based in the capital city of Kigali, led the Twitter discussion and said that it was “super exciting” that the president agreed with her and that the ban was a “much-needed intervention”. The morning after their interaction on the social media platform, she said that there was already activity around removing the products from stores.

“In Ghana, pregnant women are using products so that they can have light-skinned babies” – Fiona Kamikazi

For Kamikazi, the cause against skin lightening is personal. “I have friends that have been using these products for a long time, and their skin is very much affected,” she said. “Burning, scarring, black spots around the eyes that they have to cover up with concealers and foundations. It's really scary. When I wrote that tweet, I had seen an old friend I hadn't seen in three years that I couldn't recognise. When you meet the person and you can't recognise them because they've completely changed, it's very dangerous.” The situation in parts of Africa is so serious, she added, that “in Ghana, pregnant women are using products so that they can have light-skinned babies”.

A study in neighbouring country Tanzania in 2011 found that there were six “thematic” reasons as to why women bleach their skin: 1. To remove pimples, rashes, and skin disease. 2. To have soft skin. 3. To be White, “beautiful,” and more European looking. 4. To remove the adverse effects of extended skin bleaching use on the body. 5. To satisfy one’s partner and/or attract male mates. 6. To satisfy and impress peers.

“People think that somebody who is fairer is more beautiful, and it affects all women,” said Kamikazi. “I'd say 80% of the people who bleach are women. Society oppresses dark-skinned women, and convinces them that they are not beautiful… I've seen now that many people are embracing their natural hair and using natural products like oil on their skin and their hair. It's coming, but it's still not as big as the people who are trying to look different.”

“The underlying mindset that causes women to bleach their skin undoubtedly remains bound in a world where certain skin tone and features are ubiquitously seen as being more attractive”

The underlying mindset that causes women to bleach their skin undoubtedly remains bound in a world where certain skin tone and features are ubiquitously seen as being more attractive. Symbolically, it feels important that the government has banned the products, but globally, women with darker skin tones need to be given tools of empowerment. Otherwise, a ‘black market’ of imported products will continue to thrive.

“Everything that is illegal, people always try to find a way to get it,” said Kamikazi on the impact of the ban. “I know for a fact that it will happen. But the good thing that came with this ban, is the emphasis that the Ministry of Health is putting on advising people and doing campaigns to actually let people know the effects of these products. I hope it's going to change people's mindsets.”

A 2011 World Health Organisation study found that as many as 77% of women used skin lightening creams in the African countries that they surveyed. Although Rwanda is the first East African nation to commit to a ban, there are a handful of other African countries who have also laid down the law: in 1983, South Africa banned most skin lighteners, in 2015 Ivory Coast banned all skin whitening creams, and in 2016, Ghana banned certain skin whitening products that included hydroquinone. There have been renewed calls for a ban in Nigeria.

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