Life-threatening witchcraft accusations still a grim reality for women worldwide

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Witches like Caroline Tully in Australia, don't fear persecution as women elsewhere do. (Getty Images)

Around the world witches are known by different names – mchawi in Swahili, sanguma in Pidgin, boksi in Nepalese – but they have one thing in common; women and children accused of sorcery are hunted, mutilated, exiled, and murdered. UN researchers and human rights agencies estimate the number to be in the thousands annually.

Last week, 63-year-old Purni Orang was dragged from her home in Assam, India, stripped naked, and beheaded, because villagers thought her a witch and blamed her for a local illness. As if that’s not horrifying enough, some 2,000 people have been murdered nationwide after accusations of witchcraft between 2000 and 2012, according to data from the National Crime Records Bureau in India.

These modern-day witchcraft-related attacks are not unique to India, they occur in at least 41 countries around the globe including Papua New Guinea, Nepal, Nigeria, Uganda, South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo and multiple European nations.

"This is becoming an international problem – it is a form of persecution and violence that is spreading around the globe," Jeff Crisp of the UN's refugee agency UNHCR told a seminar organized by human rights officials.

A 2013 UNHCR Report on Voodoo, Witchcraft and Human Trafficking noted that in Europe, these cases are taking place in the UK. “In 2000 an Ivorian girl was assassinated by her relatives who accused her of being possessed by an evil spirit; in 2005 an eight-year-old child was tortured by her guardians who feared she was a witch and, in 2010, an adolescent accused of practicing witchcraft was tortured and mutilated by his sister and her boyfriend,” wrote Ana Dols Garcia, the report’s author.

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The Witchcraft and Human Rights Information Network (WHRIN) documents accusations of witchcraft against children. It has presented findings to the UN where child witches have been accused of psychic cannibalism; flying and turning into animals in order to hurt humans; causing road accidents; spreading illness; eating human flesh; causing joblessness, impotence and infertility; and causing mental health problems.

“Who is the most vulnerable and least likely to be able stand up against an accusation like this? It’s women and kids,” said Karen Palmer, Toronto-based author of Spellbound: Inside West Africa’s Witch Camps.

In the course of writing her book, Palmer lived in Africa and visited six camps in north Ghana. She heard stories: a property dispute led to a woman being accused of witchcraft; a man took on a second wife and called his first wife a witch; a woman who was a successful rice-seller was accused of witchcraft.

In instances like these, one of two things will occur, Palmer said: “She is lynched or villagers will remove her and take her to a witch camp.”

Curiously if a man bragged about his magical powers he was held in high regard. “Every chief I met in the north claimed to have spiritual protectors,” Palmer said. “When I was in Ghana politicians would be quoted in the local media saying ‘I am too strong.’ And what they were referring to is that I have witchcraft and you can’t touch me.

“So, on one hand, if you are accused of being a witch and you are a woman, in a certain part of the world it can be a death sentence.”

As a result some woman would voluntarily go to the witch camps because they felt their lives were in danger.

A number of NGOs in Africa are working to reduce abuse against women related to traditional beliefs: operating witch camp integration projects in Ghana and challenging witchcraft allegations in Uganda, Malawai, Nigeria, Tanzania.

Palmer spoke to a woman who lived in a witch camp for 40 years. After her accuser died a priest arranged for her to return to her original village. But she didn’t want to go. “She was a famous singer in the witch camp. She’d established her life,” Palmer said. Resettlement can be a wrenching and complicated process, and it isn't surprising some women just decide to stay in witch camps where they feel a sense of community.

In Papua New Guinea, Amnesty International has documented numerous attacks on women who have been burned with red-hot iron bars, beaten with hatchets, hammers and knives, and burned alive after accusations of sorcery.

Only a fraction of the sorcery-related killings are reported in the media or to the police, due to local customs seeing it as a taboo topic,” said Kate Schuetze, Amnesty International’s Pacific Researcher based in Australia.

In 2013, Papua New Guinea’s parliament repealed the 1971 Sorcery Act, which allowed murderers to use sorcery and black magic as a defense and argue for reduced reduce penal sentences. It also punished those practicing sorcery with up to two years' imprisonment.

The UN has found that sorcery accusations are used to mask violence against women and it is certainly a form of gender-based violence,” said Schuetze.

North American society has come a long way since the Salem Witch trials of 1692. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits any laws that impede the free exercise of religion including witchcraft. And charges have been laid under Section 365 of Canada’s Criminal Code for those “who fraudulently… pretends to exercise or to use any kind of witchcraft, sorcery, enchantment or conjuration.”

San Francisco, Calif. resident Reverend Joey Talley is a clinical psychologist by training and Wicca who consults with Silicon Valley technology companies to prevent hacks and banish computer viruses.

“The main thing about witchcraft is that Wicca is not devil worship,” she said. “Wicca do not recognize the existence of Satan, much less worship him. Satan is purely a Judeo-Christian concept.”

Talley, head of the 80-member monthly Meet-Up group Wicca Wimmin Moon Ritual of Marin, describes Wicca as “a nature-based spiritual practice from pre-Roman era that honors the feminine principal. We worship Gaia, meaning mother earth.”

She is upset by the witchcraft-motivated attacks around the world. “What Wicca hate are incest and rape and men killing women and children. We pray for that to end.”