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In some societies, sorcery is believed to account for sudden or unexplained death or illness. The end result is often that someone is killed for another person’s unexplained death.
Dr Miranda Forsyth says it’s time to move beyond sensationalist portrayals of the violence associated with witchcraft and sorcery.
She says some media coverage assumes the persecution of people for sorcery is determined by an inevitable evolutionary timeline – from ‘primitive to modern’.
“But on the ground it is often the stresses of modern life, in particular emerging economic disparities, that are driving the escalation in witchcraft violence,” she says.
“It is more helpful to focus on the issue of what should be done to address this violence.
“There are significant challenges in determining the best approach at practical, legal and political levels that require debate going beyond the sensational.”
Forsyth, an Associate Professor at the ANU School of Regulation and Global Governance (RegNet), has received a grant from Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development to study the issue.
“My research is looking into how to overcome sorcery accusation-related violence in Papua New Guinea,” she says.
“I’m interested in particular in looking at how the different actors at local, national and international level support each other, what regulatory mechanisms exist and what other ones could be introduced in order to overcome this problem.
“Last year there were a lot of sorcery accusations and related violence in PNG.
“The reason I stress sorcery accusation-related violence is because we’re talking particularly about the violence that comes from accusing people of sorcery.
“If you talk just about sorcery violence, then people think that is the violence that comes from the sorcery itself.“That’s why I use that terminology to be absolutely clear – it’s the violence that’s associated with making these kind of claims that people are engaging in sorcery.”
Taking hold ‘like wildfire’
This type of violence had not been witnessed previously in the PNG province of Enga until around 2010, but since then it has taken hold ‘like wildfire’.
“According to almost everyone, this is a new thing that’s happening,” Forsyth says.
“And people were talking about it almost as if it were a contagion, like measles or something, where it’s going from one place to another, and there is a real fear.”
The beliefs leading to sorcery-related violence are deep-seated, however, the violence itself can stem from other factors.
“So you have people who make accusations, for a range of motives. Sometimes it’s because they think this person really has done sorcery,” the researcher says.
“At other times, that serves as a pretext, because that person owes them money or that person has got some land they want or there is sexual jealousy involved.
“All of these things can be present and hopefully our research is going to find out to what extent they really are present.”
In March this year Forsyth made another field trip to the PNG highlands to attend workshops run by the Department of Justice and Attorney-General for local officials in two provinces.
“This work is to find out what strategies are being used to deal with this violence and what further support they need,” she says.
In 2013 the PNG Government abolished its controversial Sorcery Act but introduced the possibility of the death penalty for a new crime of killing a person on account of accusing them of sorcery.
Although the death penalty already existed in law in PNG, there have been no executions since the country’s independence in 1954.
The 1971 Sorcery Act allowed the accusation of sorcery to be used as a limited defence in murder cases. The law was repealed after a series of brutal public killings. In February 2013, a young mother accused of sorcery was burned alive in a village market. Two months later, a woman accused of black magic was beheaded.
Sorcery Act hardly ever used
Forsyth says the provocation defence contained in the 1971 Sorcery Act was hardly ever used.
“There was a lot of misunderstanding about the Act but, in reality, the Act was rarely used,” she says.
“So one of the questions to be asked is, do offences like that actually have any impact on whether people engage in this type of violence or not.
“Also, what does a community do when the people are really concerned they have a sorcerer amongst them?
“That was one factor the Sorcery Act tried to deal with – it didn’t deal with it very well at all but it was trying to get at that problem.
“In 2013 the PNG Government said, this is nonsense, this belief is not consistent with what it should be in 2013, we’re going to get rid of that Act and we will introduce a provision in the penal code that makes it a crime for someone to kill somebody on the grounds that they are a witch or sorcerer, and it provides that the penalty is death.
“So one of the things the research should find out is – was that effective? How many people knew about that, for example?
“The decision taken by the Sorcery National Action Plan committee that I’ve been part of over the past four years, was not to focus so much on the belief or to think about changing that, but to focus more on how people react to that belief.
“In particular, how do you deal with that belief in a non-violent way?
“One of the things we find is that there are some communities that have these beliefs and are able to deal with them in non-violent ways, so how is that? That’s one of the things we want to find out, how they are to do that, what strategies work?”
Forsyth’s research project for PNG is being funded through the aid program of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
“The main focus of our work is not to improve the health system or the education system but what we can say is, there are certain aspects of the way in which the health system operates, for example, in terms of explaining disease and the causes of mortality, that are contributing to this problem,” she says.
“Some health practitioners at a local health clinic, if they don’t know – or don’t want to say – the cause of death, they will say ‘sik bilong ples’ – ‘this is a local sickness’ – and that is interpreted as meaning sorcery.
“In the education system, teachers are having discussions with students about what causes sickness and misfortune, and that will help.”
The law reform commissions of South Africa, Malawi, Zimbabwe and PNG have all been seriously engaged in considering how to regulate in this area.
“At the heart of the issue is the stubborn reality that the populations in these and many other countries often sincerely believe that sorcery or witchcraft is responsible for the misfortunes that afflict them and their community,” Forsyth says.
“Such beliefs need to be taken seriously by regulators and policymakers or people will continue to take the law into their own hands through vigilante justice as documented by a series of United Nations reports.”
Forsyth says, despite the overwhelming demand for “law” to fix sorcery-related problems, it is also clear that any way forward must be multi-sectoral and involve meaningful engagement with communities.
“One such approach is currently being trialled in Papua New Guinea where in July 2015 the National Executive Council approved the Sorcery National Action Plan,” she says.
“This adopts a comprehensive approach focusing on four key areas: counselling and health, advocacy and awareness, protection and prosecution and research.”
Forsyth plans to attend the first international conference about sorcery-related violence, to be convened by the United Nations in September.
This article first appeared on ANU Reporter.