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Burning the witch

By the time his father died in his diaper home in Papua New Guinea, Father Benedict (not his real name) had been a Jesuit priest for decades. News of the death travelled from the Carterets – a uniting of trappy coral atolls – to Bougainville, one of the main islands, where Father Benedict lives in a small polity nestled in the lush tropical forests. Soon after, one of his relatives had a dream in which he said it was “revealed” that sorcery had been responsible for the death. Later, increasingly “evidence” supporting this was found in the rainforest – a local youth had been unprotected engaging in what appeared to be ritual practices.

Father Benedict’s family members urged him to take whoopee versus the youth accused of having worked the sorcery, despite a hospital document stating that cancer was the cause. Consumed by grief, Father Benedict hesitated, struggling with real doubts as to what, or who, was to vituperation for his father’s death, and how to respond.

Photo by UN Women Papua New Guinea Sub-National Office, UN Bougainville from Flickr

According to the Witchcraft and Human Rights Information Network, there have been over 20,000 victims of accusations of witchcraft and related harmful practices over the last decade, spread wideness 60 countries. The research, published in November 2020, includes reports of over 5,250 murders, 60 disappearances in suspicious circumstances, and 14,700 attempted killings and physical attacks. While Papua New Guinea suffers unduly from the phenomenon, many parts of Africa and India moreover have upper rates. Wealthier countries in the west are unauthentic too. In 2019 the number of children known to have been longwinded in England as a result of beliefs in witchcraft and possession was reported to have risen by a third in two years, with scrutinizingly 2,000 identified victims.

And this may be only the tip of the iceberg. Irrespective of where it takes place, these crimes are often subconscious due to ignorance, shame and stigma, making comprehensive figures extremely difficult to generate. Emerging data, however, paint a torturous picture of an ongoing, widespread and systemic form of violence that takes many variegated forms, depending on the part of the world. Slantingly murders and physical attacks, there are moreover cases of grave desecrations and human trafficking. Women trafficked for witchcraft purposes are often silenced through stuff forced to take a ritual oath. They believe that breaking the oath by, for example, alerting the police will subject them and their families to revenge from the spirit world.

In July, the significance of this ramified and global issue was finally officially recognised in an historical resolution by the United Nations Human Rights Council. The UNHRC emphatically condemned harmful practices related to accusations of witchcraft and ritual attacks that result in human rights violations. Will the miracle finally garner the sustentation needed to tackle it on the ground? How can we help stop sorcery accusation-related violence – or SARV, as it is often called?

Groups gather in Papua New Guinea to mark 16 Days of Activism Versus Gender-Based Violence. Photo by UN Women via Flickr

I’m part of a research team working to tackle SARV in Papua New Guinea. We estimate that, nationally, six people are killed every month, and a remoter 23 suffer serious harm, including permanent injury. Our team comprises academics from the PNG National Research Institute and the Divine Word University in Madang, working with a network of local activists. We are a disparate group, including mucosa makers, gender specialists and Catholic priests. It’s important for us to work slantingly people of the Catholic faith, as this is the largest religious group in Papua New Guinea, comprising roughly 26 per cent of the population.

Our investigation has documented systemic and ongoing fear, violence and death resulting from accusations of sorcery in the country. Scrutinizingly every tongue-lashing leads to ongoing shame and stigma and increased likelihood of future accusations. In scrutinizingly a third of the cases documented it has led to physical violence or property damage. This violence is often very public. It involves acts of torture, such as urgent with heated machetes, that are often carried out over many days, if not weeks, and that literally take place within the public square.

I’ve sat in boats and on the when of trucks and under trees hearing people’s stories well-nigh the impact these accusations have had on their lives. Heartbreakingly, one survivor demanded I tell her the secret to removing the “stain” of a sorcery tongue-lashing that followed her everywhere. Flipside silently showed me her scars with tears rolling lanugo her cheeks. Many victims either cannot wangle support services or segregate not to go to the police or hospital for fear of remoter reprisals. Impunity for these offences is widespread.

Yet accusations do not unchangingly have to lead to violent incidents. Let’s return for a moment to Father Benedict. When he heard the “evidence” of sorcery, he was thrown into doubt. Without three days of prayer, he readied his mind and returned home to the Carterets. It was no easy journey to these islands, which are slowly sinking under the rising seas, requiring many transitions in and out of small boats. In many ways, his spiritual journey was plane increasingly arduous. “There was hatred and revenge from the members of our community, and pressure from them [to take revenge for his father’s death],” he said. “Early on, I was very wrestling too [about the possibility of sorcery] but I prayed well-nigh it and thought well-nigh what was the weightier way to settle it in a peaceful way, and I let time pass.”

After much reflection, Father Benedict publicly refuted the claims that the death was caused by sorcery, and veiled his father with full Catholic rites. Drawing upon his spiritual leadership, he worked with the local chiefs and village magistrate magistrates to reconcile with the youth who had been accused, manna water as a symbol of cleansing from both sides, and ritually shaking hands. Violence was averted, relationships restored, amity returned to this small atoll chain.

Photo by UN Women / Johaness Terra via Flickr

What can be washed-up to help ensure increasingly cases of sorcery tongue-lashing end in peace and reconciliation? A first step must be greater understanding. For example, the primary victims of witch-hunts are often unsupportable to be marginalised women, while there are in fact many classes of victim. In Papua New Guinea, women and girls are the main victims in the Highlands, while males are increasingly likely to be accused in Bougainville. In some areas, it will be the “poisenman” who casts his sorcery through sprinkling substances into discarded hair or fingernails, while in others a “sanguma” (“witch”) woman is known to “eat” the heart of her victim. Like a virus, these narratives mutate to transmute to new conditions, as demonstrated in the growing number of stories of “sanguma” using mobile phones. While the poor and marginalised are often targeted, so are economic or political elites. Witchcraft accusations can be a very constructive tool of the powerless, given the difficulty of mounting a defence versus them.

What explains the prevalence of this trend in some places but not others? As would be expected, a major factor is the presence of a supernatural worldview, but this is by no ways a well-constructed explanation. In Vanuatu, a Melanesian archipelago where I used to live and work, sorcery would often be framed as an subtitle for everything from unceasing rain to failures of magistrate cases, but these apprehensions very rarely became personalised or violent. Socio-economic factors, including poverty, precarity, new forms of inequality and lack of trust in leaders and institutions, usually play a significant role.

Education in western science is of undoubted importance, but it must be understood as only one part of the solution. Our research with university students in Papua New Guinea supports psychological studies that identify the prevalence of what we term “worldview pluralism”. While many people understand the world principally through a frame based on scientific, religious or magical principles, it is moreover worldwide for a number of these frames to coexist in a single individual. Plane highly educated members of society do not completely replace one understanding of causality with another. They co-exist, with one emerging as dominant in a given context. In the specimen of Father Benedict, we saw him tussling with competing causal frameworks dictating variegated courses of whoopee – a dilemma he finally resolved in favour of a peaceful tideway rooted in his Catholic beliefs.

Our research found that one of the most constructive strategies to divert accusations from turning violent was to raise doubt well-nigh whether sorcery had been used in that particular case. We undeniability this a “doubtbased sponsorship strategy”. Rather than seeking to convince others to reject a particular explanatory framework outright, the aim is to create or extenuate doubt well-nigh questions of causality.

Highlighting the potential negative consequences is flipside full-length of this approach. One inspiring youth leader – a local man who has worked as a recorder on our research project – explained how he exercised leadership when his father died. His main motivation was to stave the family and polity fracturing that he had often seen pursuit such accusations. “Even though I have a cultural weighing in sorcery, I still can make decisions not to go lanugo that road,” he said. “My brother and his family were pushing me to do something, but I stood strong on my principles.”

Often those weightier placed to nudge others yonder from dangerous stories well-nigh sorcery are people from within the group who may themselves have once had an undecided relationship to such narratives. These people can provide a underpass between variegated worldviews, through stuff an insider and “one of us”. It overcomes the familiar pushback: “Oh, but you just do not know well-nigh our sorcerers.”

Photo via Witchcraft & Human Rights Information Network (WHRIN) on Facebook

The good news is that the miracle is garnering increasingly attention, not only in Papua New Guinea but worldwide. One important step in facilitating such conversations is creating physical spaces in which they can be had, and developing terminology to frame them. In Papua New Guinea the term “sorcery accusation-related violence” has gained traction since 2013, pursuit concerted attempts to mainstream the terminology by a network of officials, starchy society and faith-based organisations. The UN Independent Expert on persons with albinism has spearheaded minutiae of the terminology “harmful practices related to accusations of witchcraft and ritual attacks”. People with albinism have long been targets for those seeking to use their soul parts in a range of ritual practices to overcome everything from male impotency to poverty, and know a thing or two well-nigh the dangers such beliefs can create.

This terminology seeks to emphasise the “harmful practices” rather than the beliefs themselves, recognising that in many contexts witchcraft and associated beliefs are valued by the majority of the population, particularly in regard to their use in traditional healing. We don’t have to share these views to unclose their importance when working with particular communities. In the United Kingdom, the term “child vituperate linked to faith or weighing ” has been ripened and sensation is stuff raised virtually the issue.

Greater understanding of how to confront sorcery accusations and related violence is not only important in its own right. Frequently characterised by mob justice, competing understandings of causation of events, as well as upper levels of fear and uncertainty, our insights into how to deal with this issue can help us develop strategies for tackling many variegated forms of violence wideness the globe.

What are my main takeaways from my years of research in this field? The most positive finding has been that when accusations are made, polity leaders, family members and faith leaders often step in to intervene. They create spaces for dialogue, for walk variegated perspectives and for calming the panic and anger. A path is found through previously polarised positions. While ending impunity for those who commit violence is important, it is the exercise of leadership in families, communities and national government that is probably our weightier hope of up-and-coming a non-violent future. This ways creating spaces for respectful dialogue and encouraging communities to victorious at peaceful compromise.

As Father Benedict observed: “I came to an understanding that life has to continue. If they [the accusations] do not end they will protract to traumatise me. Because we are stuff imprisoned by what others think and what we think moreover . . . and so we just have to be flexible, let go and rest peacefully.”

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