By Nick Timms
In her role as Pacific Researcher for Amnesty International, Kate Schuetze has witnessed the harrowing events that follow when a woman in a Papua New Guinean tribe is accused of witchcraft.
“We don’t often go into the details, but a lot of the time they’re burnt with iron rods, they might be cut by bush knives,” she says.
“Part of the belief in sorcery is that a woman’s reproductive organs is where it resides, so they are often quite brutally treated, and require hospital treatment to recover. One of the victims that we spoke with recently had about six months in hospital to recover from the injuries she sustained.”
Papua New Guinea is one of many places around the world whose people still hold a firm belief in sorcery and witchcraft, and persecute women who they believe have used their powers to harm someone in the community. These women are often tortured, paraded around the village naked, raped and killed.
Witchcraft accusations were brought to international attention in early 2013, when photos and footage surfaced of Kepari Leniata, a 20-year-old woman, being stripped, doused in petrol and burned alive. The horrific nature of the case brought the topic into international discussion. While Kepari’s attackers have still not been brought to justice today, there was some positive outcome of the controversy: The PNG government repealed the 1971 Sorcery Act, which provided reduced sentences for those who assaulted or murdered someone, as long as they said there was witchcraft involved.
However, the accusations of witchcraft still persist, and not just in Papua New Guinea.
Dr Swati Parashar, a lecturer of politics and international studies at Monash University, has done extensive field work in India and has noticed equally disturbing levels of witchcraft accusations there as well.
“They’ve had a lot of violence against women, where they not only punish women through sexual violence, but parade them naked, rape them, and also kill them,” she says.
“I think there’s a little bit of arbitrariness to how the charges come up. They’re usually from men, who complain after some tragedy in their family, or some death that is related to some woman somewhere. It’s gotten institutionalised into the system. I would argue that it is not necessarily sanctioned by any of the religions practiced in India, but over the years I think culturally it is quite ingrained in societies… I would argue that it’s highly patriarchal and arbitrary.”
Dr Parashar also noticed in her field work that the sorcery-related attacks in India are not limited to small tribal areas.
“That is the impression that I used to have, that it emanates from fairly rural areas, but last year during my fieldwork, it was quite interesting to note that many of the cases of witchcraft are actually coming from urban cities…there were more complaints coming from urban areas, which really shocked me,” she says.
She also notes that while attacks such as these are not reported often in Western media, the attacks are incredibly frequent.
“If you start travelling to these areas like I was last year for my fieldwork, it was remarkable how every day in the papers you have stories about witchcraft or some woman that has been accused of something that’s gone wrong; it’s very regular, if you scan the local papers and local languages,” she says.
“There were some alarming figures coming from urban areas, and there were more than a thousand cases over a period of time of about 6 months to a year, and those were a thousand cases that were reported.”
Ms Schuetze shares these concerns. There are multiple cases of murder due to a belief in sorcery in Papua New Guinea that are not being reported on by the media.
“I’d say we heard of at least a dozen reports last year, and I’d say that the vast majority still aren’t getting into the media, or the media is not reporting on them,” she says.
“I think that the challenge in Papua New Guinea is that the local journalists don’t have the training and capacity or the budget to do trips and thoroughly investigate some of these cases.”
As for a specific number of cases in PNG, Ms Schuetze is unsure.
“It’s hard to quote a specific number, because I don’t think enough extensive research has been done on it, but there was a religious leader who did some research on it in his time and he believed that there were over 200 killings a year just in his area alone,” she says.
“There are parts of Papua New Guinea where it is more prolific, particularly in the highlands, which are known for their violence in any event, but it also depends on the cultural beliefs of the local community, as to what type for sorcery they believe in, and how they’d react to someone accused of sorcery. Some communities they will just banish that person, or seek compensation from them, but increasingly we are hearing more reports of people being killed, and being killed in a very public way.”
Martha MacIntyre, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Melbourne, has noted the occurrences in other places such as Africa, and questions whether it is always just women who are persecuted.
“The thing is with witchcraft, although it is predominantly women, it is not only women who are being tortured and killed for witchcraft. It’s also men,” she says.
“There are places in Africa where there are similar things, but I don’t know that they’re exclusively female there either.”
Ms Schuetze, however, believes that the pressing need is to boost the status of women, and making sure that all abide by the laws of the government. Women are still being persecuted for witchcraft in PNG, even after the repeal of the Sorcery Act.
“There was one where a woman had a court appearance. The court appearance was on the Monday, and she scattered some leaves outside the courthouse on the weekend, and she was seen doing that, and so the court actually charged her under the criminal code with an act of sorcery, like putting a spell to try and make the proceedings go in her favour,” she says.
“The problem is you’ve got magistrates at the local village level that aren’t very well educated in terms of the rule of law as we understand it.”