Sorcery accusation-related violence still plagues Papua New Guinea

A PNG rally over against violence on women
UN Women Papua New Guinea Country Office staff commemorate the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on 25 November 2015. Image: Flickr/UN Women/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

SPECIAL REPORT: By Mong Palatino

In Papua New Guinea, some already disenfranchised women have to face an added burden of sorcery accusation-related violence (SARV). However, a global initiative by the United Nations with support from the European Union has recently conducted a consultation on a proposed Human Rights Defenders Protection bill aimed at supporting groups and community leaders in ending this violence.

SARV cases remain high in the highland provinces of PNG despite a national action plan intended to eradicate the crime. Most victims of SARV are women elders in poor communities who are blamed for practising sorcery as the cause of the mysterious illness or death of a family member.

SARV cases rose during the pandemic, which reflects the lack of information about the coronavirus.

SARV was tackled by PNG legislators during a Special Parliamentary Committee in August 2021. The committee report was explicit in condemning SARV:

“This type of violence is absolutely unacceptable: it is not excusable as part of PNG’s culture but rather, arises from the misunderstanding (and sometimes the deliberate manipulation) of traditions and religion to harm innocent people, in particular women and children.

“SARV against women is often particularly brutal and sexualised, with the violent acts specifically targeting the victim’s womanhood.”

‘388 people’ accused of sorcery each year
The committee also tried to ascertain the number of SARV cases while noting that the incidents could be higher since many victims are reluctant to file a legal action against family members:

“An average of 388 people are accused of sorcery each year in the 4 provinces combined. A third of these led to physical violence or property damage. Amongst those accused, 65 were killed, 86 suffered permanent injury and 141 survived other serious assault and harm, such as burning, cutting, tying or being forced into water. Overall, 93 cases involved torture: 20 lasted several days and 10 lasted a week or even longer. The submission used that data to estimate the number of violent SARV incidents between the year 2000 and June 2020 to be over 6,000, resulting in an estimated 3,000 deaths nationally.”

Writing for the DevPolicy blog, Anton Lutz and Miranda Forsyth highlighted the long-term impact of SARV on survivors, especially women and children:

“In our 4-year study, we found that only 15% of victims die, leaving more than enough scarred, traumatised, unsupported, fearful people to seek redress in court. But they don’t. They move away. They go into hiding. They bounce around from safe house to safe house. They wait. They hope they don’t get attacked again.”

SARV cases were still being recorded even after a nationwide campaign was launched against the crime. In an editorial published in January, the Post-Courier pressed for urgent action:

“Is murder and terrorism crippling society that we blame sorcery as the easy way out and ignore it?

“This matter has been raised before.

“But no one is changing because lives are being lost or ruined and no one seems to care.

“Women especially are being targeted so there must be people who have deep hatred for women.

“They could be sick in the head.

“It would also appear that tribal enmity is creeping into the so-called sorcery killings and it is a payback in disguise.

“Payback killings are well known in PNG so why are we naive about it?”

Call for better government response
Father Giorgio Licini of the Catholic Bishops Conference echoed the call for better government response to this complex social problem: “The traditional reaction to sorcery in old Europe and current PNG appears to be largely irrational, based on suspicion and fear, retaliation and pay-back, opportunism, lies and business. The legislation is poor, insufficient, practically inexistent for an issue that is complex. It involves murder but is more than common criminal behaviour.”

Dominic Kanea, a SARV survivor, asked for tougher penalties against those who commit SARV:

“We need the MPs from the upper Highlands region to work in unity to fight against sorcery accusation-related violence.

“Introduce tougher penalties for the cowards who prey on innocent people and go on the spree of destroying properties worth millions of kina [PNG currency] and killing of innocent people.”

Women’s rights advocate Dame Carol Kidu insists that SARV is a recent phenomenon and cautions against associating it with any PNG traditions or history:

“In no anthropological writings have I seen reference to anything barbaric as this. This is not part of the ancestry of PNG as we are far more a caring society. I do not know why it has emerged like this, because we know that sorcery is part of PNG’s society, but SARV is not part of the society. SARV killings are premeditated murder and encouraged by friends and relatives.”

Fiona Hukula of the PNG National Research Institute warns about how the ongoing pandemic is fueling fear and even increasing instances of SARV:

“…there is a risk that the health crisis posed by COVID-19 has the potential to precipitate economic and social crisis. This in turn may well involve violence, as people look to allocate blame and find protection in uncertain times by scapegoating others.

The government and society at large needs to act fast to prevent the spread of fear that is a catalyst for violence and social unrest.”

  • Watch this video on how the proposed Human Rights Defenders Protection bill can boost the work of women community leaders in fighting SARV in PNG:

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