Sorcery accusations threaten women’s security in Papua New Guinea


In Papua New Guinea close to a third of the population lives below the poverty line, but that is not to say there is a shortage of cultural riches. This small nation of under seven million boosts over 850 indigenous languages and a vast number of traditional communities.

The country’s constitution values Papua New Guinea’s heritage, makes room for custom law, and protects land titles of indigenous populations. As a result, eighty-two percent of Papuans are spread across rural areas, often in close-knit and unique traditional communities. But whereas Papua New Guinea is a widely diverse, the United Nations Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has recently expressed concerns about an overall growing trend of violence against women within indigenous societies, mainly as a result of sorcery or witchcraft accusations.

Religious and spiritual beliefs play a crucial role in local communities. Not only is such beliefs part of the traditional way of life, they have been crucial for local people’s interpretation of modern times and change within their nation. Often the contemporary challenges of HIV/Aids, poverty, and climate change are explained and dealt with through faith, making religious, spiritual, and sorcery beliefs an important part of life in Papua New Guinea.

This last point is well understood explained Matilda Bogner, OHCHR representative in the Pacific. “International human rights law does not judge the beliefs that people hold. People have the right to hold such beliefs and to practice cultural traditions, so long as they comply with human rights standards. In the case of Papua New Guinea, it is the violence that has evolved as a response to these beliefs that leads to human rights violations,” said Bogner to MediaGlobal. .

Earlier this year Papua New Guinea had been called for a review of the committee on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). At the United Nations, the committee expressed serious concerns about violence related to sorcery accusations and called on the Papua New Guinea government “with the support of civil society and involvement of community and village chiefs and religious leaders, to eliminate this practice.”

Although the Papua New Guinea government condemns such attacks, law enforcement on the matter is particularly challenging. “There are many layered reasons why local authorities and central authorities do not respond adequately to enforce the law. At times police are fearful to respond because of their lack of resources, but also because of their real fear of retribution.” Bogner told MediaGlobal. OHCHR has also expressed concerns that sorcery accusations can also be used as a disguise for violence related to other grievances or personal rivalries.

The issue is particularly problematic in the rural highlands where, “It is believed that majority of the victims of sorcery related killings are women, although a number of the men have also been victimized. What is emerging in current research is that vulnerable women who lack protection appear to be frequently targeted.” said Bogner.

The gender dimension of the problem might also be related to the lack of women in power positions at a local level. Although village courts, responsible for solving disputes and maintaining peace within the community, are legally required to have at least one female magistrate, the rule is hardly implemented. As a result women, often have no official say in delicate mediation processes of issues like witchcraft or local conflicts.

“The important thing is that these constraints are recognized and national level responses are taken to support local authorities to enforce the law.” said Bogner. “There are a number of organizations that have worked on the issue of sorcery related attacks, including women at the local level. However, it is difficult and sometimes dangerous work that needs more support.” Bogner added.

Nolamb Yekum, a young woman from the highlands of Papua New Guinea, faced the danger of accusations first hand. Yekum was blamed of using witchcraft in 2008 and forced to leave her home while pregnant, fearing for her life. Yekum was caught while on the run and gave birth tied to a tree. She managed to escape with her newborn child and seek refuge in a new province. Yekum was only reunited with her husband two years later, when she learned that her two older children had died of starvation. Earlier this year in a statement to the Papuan press, the survivor stressed the case of people accused of sorcery; “ We are now refugees in our own country.”

Despite recent national and international attention, the issue remains delicate and threatens to disrupt women’s empowerment and human security in the region. “Strong messages need to be sent by all levels of government, and coordinated with NGOs, churches and other key institutions in the country, that such attacks are wrong and will not be accepted.” Bogner told MediaGlobal.

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