What To Do About ‘Witchcraft’
By Jo ChandlerFebruary 22, 2013
Sermons, SMS and programs socialising children to reject violence: these are some of the responses that emerged from Papua New Guinea after our story about the ongoing belief in sorcery — and its brutal consequences.
Our story “It’s 2013 And They’re Burning ‘Witches’”, exploring concerns about the increasing incidence, spread and brutality of sorcery-related violence in Papua New Guinea, has provoked an extraordinary international response and wide commentary within PNG.
Many readers expressed distress and outrage. Many also asked what they might do — personally through donations, or in terms of supporting efforts to identify solutions and address the roots of the deeply complex issues underpinning the phenomenon.
The international discussion coincides with much soul-searching and agitation for action within PNG, where there is increasing clamor in newspaper letters pages and in local social media for tackling the issues forcefully and with urgency. The gang-rape of a nurse in Lae last week, coming on the heels of the “witch burning” episode in Mount Hagen, has spurred protests and petitions to address violence against women in all its manifestations.
The Global Mail invited a range of people with experience or expertise in the area — from within and outside PNG — to make some suggestions. A few key common themes emerge:
● There are no formula solutions, given the diversity and complexity of PNG society; with 850 languages and cultures, there is no one-size-fits-all answer.
● Actions must be led and driven by Papua New Guineans, supported by external experts and donors but not imposed from outside.
● Initiatives should work simultaneously bottom-up (grassroots conversations through churches; mobile-phone alarm networks, etc) and top-down (stronger policies, including on a generational time-scale, plus action to improve policing, sentencing, etc).
Dame Carol Kidu, a former MP who retired last year as Papua New Guinea’s long-serving minister for community development, says she is deeply concerned by what appears to be a “rapid escalation” in sorcery-related violence — that is, the torture and murder of women mostly, but men too, accused of sorcery or violence.
Belief in bad magic is common throughout PNG, a Pacific nation of 7 million people, although not all communities respond to it violently. Enduring tradition resists the notion that natural causes, disease, accident or recklessness might be responsible for a death, particularly that of a child or young man. Rather, sorcery or witchcraft is blamed, and in some customs, the perceived evildoer is hunted down, tortured and killed. They are usually the most vulnerable, usually women, and often targeted by opportunists wanting their land.
Dame Carol recalled that when she presented on PNG’s situation to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) three years ago, she was questioned about sorcery killings. At the time, she and other PNG representatives felt the issue was being over-emphasised, at the expense of issues such as maternal deaths (amongst the worst in the world in PNG — 733 per 100,000 births) and pervasive family violence.
“However, what is emerging now is really scary — perhaps as a result of the lack of accountability by the perpetrators of the violence,” she says. “How many have been arrested and charged? We need to know. And what have they been charged with? It must be treated as premeditated and aggravated murder.”
One immediate way to reach deeply into communities is to engage through church sermons, she says, describing this as “very important to help people in their struggle between ‘custom’ [in the form of pervasive fear of sorcery] and modernity”.
Dame Carol, who was born in Queensland, moved to PNG more than 40 years ago as the bride of Buri Kidu, later PNG’s first national Chief Justice. She urges church leaders to be heard speaking out condemning violence.
More than 96 per cent of the PNG population identifies as Christian, many meanwhile holding and practicing traditional beliefs. With few other functional institutions in many communities, churches and priests have immense influence.
While the Catholic church has the largest national congregation, fundamentalist groups appear to have an increasing influence in some communities, and Dame Carol is one of several expert commentators who raises concerns about “fire and brimstone” preaching reinforcing traditional demonic beliefs.
“This is a society that had gone through over a hundred years of missionisation and ‘pacification’. The societies we are dealing with have had very limited exposure beyond their traditional world, and modern technology has made that exposure sometimes very confusing and confronting. Responsible leadership is essential but that alone is not enough.
“For years I have talked about the emotional and psychological well-being of our people … and the critical importance of early childhood socialisation programs,” she says.
In her time in the ministry, Dame Carol championed an Integrated Community Development policy based on a 50-year timeframe of generational change, starting in early childhood. In her post-political life, she hopes to be able to continue to work to see some of that program implemented.
“We need a long-term strategy that focuses on socialising children to reject violence.
“In view of the fact that some cultures in PNG are basically quite aggressive and have had limited ‘pacification’ history, we have a difficult road ahead of us, and sadly too many innocent victims will suffer along that road.”
In terms of reaching the grassroots, Dame Carol endorsed the “fearless and sensitive” church and community strategy being encouraged by anthropologist and Catholic priest Dr Philip Gibbs, one of PNG’s foremost experts on sorcery violence.
Last weekend Gibbs said mass in Mount Hagen to a congregation including witnesses to the burning of a Kepari Leniata, a 20-year-old woman tortured and burned alive on a local rubbish tip. The woman had been accused of using witchcraft to cause the death of a six-year-old boy, who had perished in the local hospital. Police have detained more than 40 people connected with the incident, and charged two — believed to be the dead boy’s mother and uncle — with her murder.
“I spoke with some who said they had actually tried to stop it, but were unable,” Gibbs explains. “If, as an ex-pat, you tell people they are longlong [mad, crazy] to believe [in sorcery] superstition, many will just close down.
“I spoke about how many have a sense of confusion — with one leg in the Christian faith camp, and the other in the tambuna one [the ancestors’ time] — and many nodded in recognition,” the priest says.
“I spoke too about how just one person is powerless in such situations and how we need to support one another to counter this sort of thinking and inhuman behaviour as a group, and many, particularly the women, showed signs that they agreed.”
Gibbs will be presenting a paper at a forthcoming major conference at the Australian National University on witchcraft and sorcery-related killings in Melanesia. He will propose an approach developed by Catholic Bishop of Kundiawa, Anton Bal, in the province of Simbu — one of the hot spots for attacks. The bishop was born and bred in Simbu.
Bishop Bal’s approach works at the grassroots to help people understand the causes of illness and death, intervening with this information before or during a funeral, before sanguma [witchcraft] allegations start to emerge. The program works with grieving families to help them deal with their emotions and ‘take ownership’ of the death of a family member. It also promotes law and order in communities.
“We need an approach that will affect people’s attitudes and feelings, their world-view, and this is not easy.
“One thing that concerns me is that the Simbu form of witchcraft and sorcery [which is particularly brutal] seems to be spreading out to other places like Enga and Southern Highlands. [Their] people used to look at it differently, and would kill pigs, not people.”
Another critical priority at the community level is rolling out programs focused on men and boys, according to Dr Miriam O’Connor, a Port Moresby-based Australian doctor who has worked extensively evaluating the effectiveness of aid and development programs on the ground.
“Men have lost their way in PNG. The sense of masculinity has taken a hammering — lots of bad [traditional] stuff had to go, but it hasn’t been replaced with good stuff.”
Aid and development programs focused heavily on maternal and child health initiatives, also imperative, but apparently at the expense of programs that would help boys and men deal with dislocation, disaffection, unemployment, drugs and alcohol.
Still at the grassroots, several experts believe there is enormous potential to use the exploding reach of mobile phones to both educate and support communities — for instance, using SMS to raise the alarm of an attack anonymously, and to bring in police or community leaders to shut it down.
An in-depth 2010 investigation by Oxfam into sorcery beliefs and practices in one Simbu community identified education as “the first and most important” response — “stressing the negative impacts of sorcery accusations on households, clans and communities in terms of conflict, fear and suspicion can be done through plays and drama.
“There is a perception that sorcery beliefs are part of the unique cultural heritage of Melanesia. Therefore it is important to stress that similar beliefs exist, or have existed, almost everywhere in the word, often with equally horrific consequences.”
A very strong law-and-order response — tough sentencing and enforcement of the law, including pursuing the “witchdoctors” who identify people for attack, as well as the actual perpetrators of the crime — was identified across the board as a key priority.
Many of the protests now being organised on the ground in PNG are driven by demands for tougher sentencing — including calls for castration and public flogging of offenders, and exercise of the death penalty — which is active in PNG, though it has not been used in many years.
Expert commentators say strong penalties — and evidence of them being implemented — will be critical to a safer PNG. To achieve this, there is an urgent need for improved police education and training. The PNG constabulary is at present demoralised, under-resourced, and in many instances corrupt and brutal.
Dr Eric Kwa, one of PNG’s most eminent legal experts, and presently chairman of the PNG Constitutional and Law Reform Commission, has urged the national government to adopt the recommendation of his commission’s two-year review of sorcery-related violence and repeal the controversial Sorcery Act. This would remove the protection of mitigation it presently allows some killers and torturers.
But the commission’s final report also urges that local courts continue to provide a venue for people to have their concerns about alleged sorcery heard and prosecuted.
“I think the global exposure [of violence] is good,” said Dame Carol. “We must feel national shame about what is happening. But in the final outcome, the response must come from inside PNG, from all levels of society — on the ground, not only through social media.”
Agencies Aiming to Help:
MÉDECINS SANS FRONTIÈRES: Is pushing for a comprehensive response to family and sexual violence in PNG, and provides medical and psychological support to victims of attack in Lae and Tari. www.msf.org.au/sexualviolence
OXFAM: Runs a range of programs through the PNG highlands, including supporting women’s networks and exploring roots of violence. For information and donations, go to www.oxfam.org.au
INTERNATIONAL WOMENS DEVELOPMENT AGENCY (IWDA): Has been active for some years in affected highlands communities supporting a wide range of programs. www.iwda.org.au