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Burning or stabbing people accused of witchcraft conjures up images from hundreds of years ago, yet the practice continues today and is even growing in some remote areas of Papua New Guinea.
More than 600 people were reported killed and another 340 wounded in witchcraft-related attacks in Papua New Guinea (PNG) over the last 20 years, according to research by RegNet’s Miranda Forsyth.
While it’s difficult to determine whether these attacks are on the rise throughout PNG, the violence has increased in some regions and seems to be more extreme and involves more torture, said Miranda, who has been studying this issue in PNG and throughout Melanesia.
“People absolutely believe sorcery is real,” she said. “There is a lot of fear, a deep sense of threat and insecurity that come from those beliefs. So then, how do you respond to that?”
Over the past few years, Forsyth helped organise conferences that focused on sorcery-accusation killing and possible responses to lessen the violence. She contributed to efforts by PNG’s Department of Justice and Attorney General to develop a National Action Plan to Address Sorcery Accusation-Related Violence in PNG. The plan is based on the principle of first addressing the violence associated with sorcery accusations, rather than trying to change belief systems.
Forsyth is also leading a four-year project collecting data in two PNG provinces where local recorders will document accusations of witchcraft – both those that lead to violence and those that do not. This will be supplemented by a six-month collection of data from police and courts on sorcery-related violence, and in-depth reports through interviews to create the first comprehensive study of this type of crime in PNG.
In 1971, PNG adopted the Sorcery Act, which criminalised the practice of sorcery and witchcraft – including acts that purported to be supernatural – and provided a mitigating defence to those committing murder on the basis of a belief in sorcery. However, the law was seldom used.
PNG later repealed the law as ineffective and introduced a specific provision into the criminal code that killings linked to accusations of sorcery would be treated as murder. However, many in PNG remain unclear about how to respond to sorcery.
“There is a lot of confusion among the population in Papua New Guinea about what the law is and whether or not violence perpetrated against sorcerers is the right thing to do,” Forsyth said.
People who make accusations have various motives, and some hold a real belief that they have been harmed by witchcraft. Other times, people make such accusation to acquire land or goods, get out of debts or in order to hide their own personal shortcomings.
Over time, the situations surrounding the violence can change.
In the Lake Kopiago region, women have become targeted, including older widows who lack male kin, divorcees living independently with their children, and females who are perceived to be doing men’s work or not accepting male advances, said Nicole Haley, an ANU researcher who has studied witchcraft in the region.
Torture has increased there as well. Previously, the accused were publicly interrogated and urged to confess their misdeeds, which were thought to take away sorcerers’ powers and reform them, Haley said. They also were required to pay compensation for their acts.
Today, accusations often are more about punishment and retribution than confession. Where interrogators once were community leaders or relatives of the accused, now they often are young men with guns that have little standing within the communities, Haley said.
But the violent incidents surrounding sorcery can vary widely by region, Forsyth said. In Bougainville, for example, most of the victims of violence were men, especially in the wake of the island’s civil war that ended in 1998.
A common denominator across all PNG regions is that death or sickness usually triggers accusation violence. Sorcery accusations are often seen as a manifestation of deep social and economic stresses caused by failing health and education services, increasing economic disparities and population displacements.
PNG’s action plan adopted in 2015 to lessen sorcery-related violence promised to address symptoms related to these socio-economic problems. Specifically, provisions included assurances that attacks would be investigated and prosecuted, the development of strategies for mediating accusations at the community level, the improvement of communications about what the law says, and improvements in how health workers provided information to patients and their families about disease processes.
While the plan takes a good step towards reducing violence, the PNG government has not provided the resources to back it up, Forsyth said. For example, about 15,000 perpetrators were involved in witchcraft-related attacks over the last two decades but only 115 received sentences, according to data from newspaper reports and judgments.
PNG is not the only country facing sorcery-accusation violence, with incidents also reported in parts of Africa and Asia. The United Nations held a workshop on the topic in Geneva in 2017 that was the first international-level conference to address sorcery-accusation violence as a human-rights issue, Forsyth said.
“I think the conference got the issue of sorcery-related violence away from being seen as a bizarre or marginal issue and into the mainstream international human-rights agenda. It’s given it a legitimacy – people in the global North don’t just laughingly dismiss it anymore.”
Associated research project(s): PNG Sorcery National Action Plan
Research Funded by: Pacific Women PNG, ANU
Timeframe: 2016 - 2020
Engagement with key stakeholders:
Participation in SNAP meetings and planning in August and December, reports of SNAP research activities provided to SNAP committee
Meeting with relevant stakeholders: US Ambassador 10 August
Village Court workshop in Port Moresby in August 2017 to explain research and sensitise village court magistrates to the issues of sorcery accusation related violence
Engagement with media in both Australia and PNG: ABC News Pacific Beat coverage; ABC News The World coverage; 20 November 2017 http://asopa.typepad.com/asopa_people/2017/11/sanguma-a-real-evil-that-d...
Public presentations of preliminary research findings: PNG Update 11 August; Seminar at Attorney General’s Department, Canberra 25 October; Overcoming Sorcery Accusation related Violence in PNG, National Museum, Public forum organised by CSCM, 17 November Port Moresby: http://www.looppng.com/png-news/there-are-non-violent-ways-dr-forsyth-69...); RegNet “Fear” series 14 November 2017.
Participation in 22 September Geneva UN Experts Workshop on Witchcraft and Human Rights (and blog write-up: Miranda Forsyth and Philip Gibbs, Witchcraft Accusation Based Violence Gets International Attention for the First Time, DevPol Blog 29 September 2017 http://devpolicy.org/witchcraft-accusation-based-violence-gets-internati...
Miranda Forsyth and Philip Gibbs, International Debates Around Witchcraft Accusation based Violence, Devpol Blog 4 October 2017, http://devpolicy.org/international-debates-around-witchcraft-accusation-...
Presentation to UNDP, New York, 26 January 2018 (Fiona Hukula)
The research has informed the implementation of the PNG Sorcery National Action Plan in a variety of ways, feeding into policy and legislative analysis and development, training program development and identification of key and effective messaging. At an international level the research has been important in advancing the recognition of the issue of sorcery accusations and related violence as a human rights issue within the UN.
The research project in Bougainville has built confidence in the reporters both in their personal lives and in their understanding of SARV. They are taking part actively to spread awareness on SARV. Two of them have been asked to join the wanbel courts in their constituency. Others have taken part more actively in youth and community activities and trainings.
As a result of the participation in the Geneva workshop we are more linked into the UN system and are engaging with an international collaboration to get a UN resolution on sorcery and witchcraft accusation related violence passed. We have also taken up opportunities to speak with the UN both in New York and in Port Moresby. Miranda was asked to lead an international academic action network (see http://www.whrin.org/take-action-2/).