By Sabrina Willard
When hearing the phrase “witch hunt” or “witch trials,” I recall a film that my 9th grade history teacher assigned us to watch on 17th century Salem, Massachusetts, not a modern day vehicle of violence and hate expression. A similar reaction was penned in a recent op-ed posted by The New York Times discussing this rising trend of attacks on people accused of witchcraft. The author noted that “it is a grim paradox of 21st-century life that violence against people accused of sorcery is very much still with us.”
The United Nations (UN) suspects that each year thousands of mostly women and children are ostracized, abused and even murdered following allegations of witchcraft. This form of abuse that gained popularity in another era has been picking up speed in the present, especially in Africa, the Pacific, Latin America, and even immigrant communities in the U.S and the U.K.. The growing problem prompted a formal report from the UN in 2009 titled “Witches in the 21st Century,” which documented the issue across various communities, such as Nigeria, Angola, South Africa, India and Nepal. Another UN report claimed that there are more than 50 sorcery-related killings each year in Papua New Guinea in just one of its provinces, while, in 2009, it was thought that as many as 2,000 accused witches and their dependents in Ghana were being forced to live in five separate camps, with some having been forced to live there for decades.
The violence stemming from this particular form of prejudice varies from community to community in how it is carried-out. The accused might be burned alive, as was the case last year for a 20-year-old mother in Papua New Guinea. Suspects could also be beaten to death, as was seen in Columbia in 2012. Beheadings and stonings are also possibilities, referring to recent cases in sub-Saharan Africa and Indonesia.
So why have sorcery-related killings reemerged in modern society and how is this problem being addressed by local authorities?
Some suspect that gender discrimination has much to do with it. These killings are often carried-out by groups of young men who, in their tribes or towns, might be in a position where they are expected to prove their worth as a twisted coming-of-age ritual. The fact that it has been estimated that women are targeted five to one hints at the validity of this theory, stated Rev. Jack Urame of the Melanesian Institute, a Papua New Guinean human rights agency.
Another theory put forth is the emergence of revivalist churches where grandstanding pastor-prophets dramatize the purging of evil spirits. It is thought that, in the poverty-stricken regions where many of these incidences occur, the stress of childrearing, as well as the advertisement of exorcisms for a price, could be helping to perpetuate this form of violence.
To make matters worse, technology and increasing interconnectedness in the present day have allowed this practice to spread to other parts of the world, suggesting a reason for why countries like the U.S. and U.K. have gotten a taste for this sort of violence.
Action from local authorities has been as varied as they come, with some governments seeking to combat the practice and others sanctioning it. Over recent years, the Saudi Arabian court has dealt-out death, lashings and prison sentences to people accused of sorcery. It has also established an Anti-Witchcraft Unit tasked with arresting accused witches. In other cases, some suspect the Indonesian government of specifically targeting single women with little or no family connections so that their property and assets can be seized.
On the other hand, last year Papua New Guinea repealed a 1971 law that supported the right to attack supposed-witches as long as the intent was to fight witchcraft. Oxfam also reported that Catholic ministries have recently sought to teach their congregants about common causes of death and illness so as to peel back some of the mystery surrounding these occurrences. Additionally, one Nigerian state has taken steps toward abolishing the practice by outlawing accusing children of sorcery.
While accusations of witchcraft may be old news as far as history is concerned, the concept of sorcery-related violence is new to the context of human rights law. The author of the New York Times op-ed piece suggested that “legal efforts must be paired with increased social awareness” in order for us to successfully address this issue. In addition to the active role of governments in outlawing these practices, reports from international human rights organizations need to be updated and this violence officially branded as a hate crime by international courts and other international bodies whose mission it is to protect human rights.