By Sr Bernadette Mary Reis, fsp
For many people, accusations of witchcraft and sorcery are echoes of a history long gone. But for others, it is still a very real threat.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has acknowledged that beliefs relating bad things that happen to people considered witches is still a reality in “numerous countries around the world.” As a result, human rights are violated. The OHCHR lists some repercussions suffered by people accused of witchcraft as “beatings, banishment, cutting of body parts, and amputation of limbs, torture and murder.” People particularly at risk are “women, children, the elderly, and persons with disabilities particularly persons with albinism.”
Local Bishop raises awareness
Bishop Donald Lippert of Mendi, in Papua New Guinea, has been raising awareness about this problem through social media. Bishop Mendi hopes his social media campaign denouncing such practices will help the Church to face the problem and eradicate it.
Sr Lorena Jenal reported the torture and burning of three women on Easter Sunday in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea. They had been accused of the death of a man who had a history of asthma and kidney ailments. That episode was followed by the accusation of sorcery against six other women in the same area.
"Those who torture and kill women accused of sorcery are clearly guilty of the crime they are reporting”, Bishop Lippert said last Saturday. He urged people to observe the first International Day against Witchcraft and Sorcery Accusation, held on 10 August, saying “Let us all observe it together, pray together and act to stop the violence related.”
On Friday, the Bishops Conference of Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands posted information about last Monday’s event. The article, complete with photos, reports that about 3,000 people from the “Diocese of Mendi with members from other Churches” marched peacefully in Momei Oval, a township of Mendi.
It is reported that students and staff of a primary school, people with roles in the local community and health care, members of youth and women’s groups, civil authorities and religious leaders took part in the demonstration. Placards read: “Do not to kill innocent mothers, fathers and young women” and “Respect the dignity of persons.”
Problem in context
Father Pius Hal represented the Diocese of Mendi in his capacity of Vicar General. Rather than being something faced by a few people, he said, many women in the area are exposed to such accusations and the violence it brings. Some, he explained, even have to flee their homes. "In many areas of Southern Highlands,” Father Hal explained, “many think that there is no natural death and that every death must have a clear cause. Unfortunately, when this happens the poor and defenceless are blamed for the death of a person.”
His recommendation is that autopsies replace the practice of “consulting witch doctors”. The word of a qualified medical personnel to declare the cause of death may stem the hiring of “bush doctors” who need no proof “to blame innocent and vulnerable people” of witchcraft or sorcery, Father Hal stated.
Representing the Family and Sexual Violence unit, Sgt Jimmy Suaip said that the crimes committed against those accused of witchcraft often go unreported. "Many women were hanged, tortured and killed in the remote villages of the province but relatives do not report to us in fear of retaliation,” he said.
Common moral duty
Public Solicitor Jenny Karenge said at the event that shelters and safe houses are needed in the province to welcome women facing the threat of violence. She says everyone has a moral duty to protect women and “to fight against Sorcery related issues.”
Follow-up online event
A panel discussion on the issue is set for Tuesday, 18 August 2020 via the social media conferencing platform Zoom. Anyone interested in joining the discussion is asked to contact Fr Ambrose Pereira via e-mail.