Sorcery-related violence surges in PNG as women attacked and murdered, accused of witchcraft

Sorcery-related violence surges in PNG as women attacked and murdered, accused of witchcraft

Sorcery-related violence surges in PNG as women attacked and murdered, accused of witchcraft

Updated 29 October 2017, 15:45 AEDT

Community leaders in Papua New Guinea say they are at a loss to explain a recent upsurge in sorcery-related violence, which policy makers say have spread from remote parts of the country into larger towns and cities.

Community leaders in Papua New Guinea have said they are at a loss to explain a recent upsurge in sorcery-related violence that most often targets women, in some parts of the country.

Key points

  • Attacks on women accused of sorcery usually take place in remote areas
  • Six women have been killed over witchcraft allegations in the more densely-populated Enga province since September
  • Church leaders have raised concerns over a lack of resources and education to tackle the problem

Attacks and murders of people accused of practising witchcraft have spread from remote areas in the country's highlands to large towns and cities, alarming policy makers trying to address the problem.

Anton Lutz, a Lutheran missionary in PNG's Enga province, said there had been seven attacks on women accused of witchcraft — known locally as sanguma — in the province since late September.

Six of those were fatal.

"In each of these cases, they were precipitated by an unexplained death or illness in the community, and the community then turned on the local scapegoat and started torturing her, Mr Lutz told the ABC's Pacific Beat.

"And under torture, the women are saying things that incriminate themselves and reinforce these beliefs.

"One of the things that people believe about these so-called witches or sanguma is when they're not being tortured they'll lie, and if they are being tortured, they'll tell the truth."

The Government is working with community groups nationally to implement the Sorcery National Action plan to reduce violence through education, legal and police strategies, and health care.

The latter is seen as particularly important, because most cases of sorcery-related killings or violence coincide with unexplained deaths and illnesses in a community.

WARNING: The following video contains graphic content.

Mr Lutz said the increase in attacks over the last year in Enga had come despite a regional response team formed to try to halt the attacks and murders, which he believed did not have enough resources to do its job properly.

"The response team didn't do much responding," he said.

"There was no awareness, no school programs, so people didn't see anything changing."

Researcher Nicole George, writing in The Conversation in 2015, said studies of sorcery-related deaths showed accusations of witchcraft were usually levelled at those on the bottom of the social hierarchy, most often women who lived on the margins of society — the elderly, disabled, or those who had married into the village.

In a 2015 report into gender-based violence in Papua New Guinea, Human Rights Watch said "sorcery accusations all too often become a form of family violence, with abusive husbands … using sorcery accusations to silence and control women."

In the same year, a graphic video surfaced showing a number of women apparently being tortured over suspicion of witchcraft in the Enga province.

Social media could help reduce violence

Scott Waide, a senior journalist at PNG television station EMTV, told Pacific Beat the rise in sorcery accusations and related killings could be attributed to a breakdown in the education system over the past two decades.

"That … has contributed to this absence of critical thinking that this whole generation of Papua New Guineans now has," he said.

"There are a lot more people who will readily believe anything."

However, Mr Waide said there was some hope in the power of social media to get help to victims of sorcery-related violence, or at least improve the reporting of such incidents.

Family and domestic violence support services:

He said an incident on October 25 in PNG's second-largest city, Lae, in which a woman accused of sorcery was attacked, could have been much worse if photos of her plight had not been shared on Facebook.

Police were alerted and rescued the woman before she could be more seriously injured.

Mr Lutz said leaders from his Lutheran church and other Christian groups had had little success in getting people to see why sorcery-related violence was wrong.

"[They said] 'we don't have access to good services out here and our politicians have ignored us, so this kind of thing is happening and we don't know what to do, so can you give us medicine to get rid of this witchcraft from among us?"'

"And we said of course we don't have any medicine that can do that because only changing your mindset and your attitude will do that.

"So if you want to go to school or if you want to go to church, you can probably be rid of these beliefs, but there's no pill you can take, buddy."

The national counselling helpline's number for callers within Papua New Guinea is 715-08000.