I am writing to urge the international community to come to the aid of the Pacific nation of Papua New Guinea as it grapples with the menace of witchcraft or sorcery related violence. Witch persecution and killing has been going on in the country for too long and we cannot allow it to continue.
We need to take action now!
The recent lynching of a 20-year old woman, Leniata Kepari for sorcery has revealed the urgency and complexity of the situation. It underscores the imperative a pro-active approach. Even as the world is still trying to comprehend the reason for this savage act, the police in Papua New Guinea has reportedly saved two other women from being lynched. According to the report, the ‘two elderly women were tied to poles and people were preparing to set them alight over the death of an eight-year-old girl’. The girl’s relatives believed the women killed their child through sorcery and magic. A local witch doctor called a ‘glassman’ who claimed to have supernatural powers had identified the women as responsible for the child’s death.
But the police said the girl was gang-raped and killed by two people who were part of a lynch mob.
The Prime Minister has deplored the widespread killings associated with sorcery. Violence against women, he noted, was becoming too common in certain parts of the country. The government is asking people who are not sure of the cause of death of their family members to take the body to a doctor for an autopsy. In Papua New Guinea, most people do not accept natural causes of death and diseases. People attribute their misfortune to sorcery or witchcraft. In July, police arrested 29 members of a witch hunting cult who allegedly murdered and cannibalized their victims, believing they were sorcerers.
But a local police chief has noted the problem of evidence- that the evidence for magically causing a death or illness is simply not there. "What evidence do they have to produce to court for sorcery-related killing and torturing?" He queried. ‘It is just a belief’. Mere belief indeed. Unfortunately, this is a realization which few people in the country entertain and can openly express. Most people in Papua New Guinea think witchcraft is more than a belief. That witchcraft is ‘real’. Hence the problem of witch burning continues.
The civilized world needs to help Papua New Guinea to stop this wave of violence. Countries and international institutions should remain indifferent in the name of respecting people’s culture, religion or tradition. Witch burning is not a cultural or religious practice that should be respected. Witch persecution is a violent custom that should be opposed, condemned and abandoned.
And we must ‘fight’ now to end it in Papua Guinea and in other countries in Asia and Africa.
Attributing the cause of death or disease to sorcery or witchcraft is not a pattern of thinking that should go unchallenged. Witchcraft accusation is often informed by a misconception and misdiagnosis of social conditions. Those who peddle such witch beliefs should be challenged and compelled to provide evidence. Those who exploit poor ignorant folks in the name of witchcraft should be exposed. Local authorities that handle witchcraft related cases should be supported and assisted so that they can to make informed decisions. Those who accuse people of witchcraft and then attack or kill them should be made to answer for their crimes. The government of Papua New Guinea should ensure the rule of law, not that of a lynch mob, and strive to protect the rights of women and others who are often victims of witch persecution and killing.
The international community should muster the will and assist Papua New Guinea to resolve the issue of witch hunting. Tackling the problem of witch craze and hysteria in the country needs bold and courageous initiatives. The UN should mainstream efforts to combat witch persecution in its activities including by including programs to protect and empower women, children, elderly persons and people living with disabilities.
Through the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the UN should use international human rights mechanisms to pressure the government of Papua New Guinea to protect the rights of women in the country and bring an end to this violence. UNESCO should support programs to improve the quality of education. Such programs should include inculcating the values of peace, scientific and critical thinking. Witch hunting is an act of war against vulnerable members of the population. Witchcraft violence starts in the mind. And so, eradicating it requires programs that help reorient the minds of the people.
The World Health Organisation should put in place basic health education programs on the causes of death and diseases. People should be told that malaria is caused by parasites, not witchcraft(puripuri). And that there is no evidence that somebody can cause death or disease through sorcery. People should be encouraged to seek evidence-based medical care and counselling from trained doctors in clinics and hospitals, not ‘magical healing’ and ‘supernatural solutions’ from witchdoctors when they are sick.
UN Women should come up with initatives to empower women in the country and reduce their vulnerability to accusations and attacks. The UN Initiative on Ageing should launch programs to protect aging population from witchcraft suspicion and accusation. Very often, witchcraft in rural communities has a female or aging face. Through the UNDP, the UN can respond to the development challenges in the Papua New Guinea. Witch craze is often a symptom of underdevelopment or development failure. Most cases of accusation take place in rural areas where social infrastructure is lacking or is inadequate.
Australia, Britain, the US and other countries with development aid programs in Papua New Guinea should get involved in addressing the problem too. They should not use the narrative of colonialism as an excuse, or as a reason to turn a blind eye on this tragic situation. Helping a country to combat a harmful traditional practice is not colonialism but international relations at its best.
Also, religious organisations need to join efforts in combating witch hunts. Obviously faith groups face theological and creedal challenges in tackling the issue of witchcraft. Still they should -as they did in Europe- act to promote socio-cultural and religious reformation, and achieve an Enlightenment in Papua New Guinea. They should work and campaign to end this dark age phenomenon in the country.
The world can help and should help now. Let’s act to end sorcery or witchcraft related violence.
Together we can work to stop witch hunting in Papua New Guinea, in Asia, in Africa and around the globe.
Leo Igwe, as a member of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, has bravely worked for human rights in West Africa. He is presently enrolled in a three year research programme on “Witchcraft accusations in Africa” at the University of Bayreuth, in Germany.