Witch Hunts in Papua New Guinea

The news of the murder of a 20 year old woman from Papua New Guinea, Kepari Leniata,  for witchcraft has made headlines across the world.

Leniata’s relatives accused her of killing a boy through sorcery. They ‘tortured her with a hot iron, stripped her naked, tied up her hands and legs and threw her into the fire in front of hundreds of people’. Police and firefighters were at the scene but couldn’t save her life. They were outnumbered by the lynch mob.

In its reaction, the UN human rights office in Geneva said it was deeply disturbed by the killing of Leniata, which it said “adds to the growing pattern of vigilante attacks and killings of persons accused of sorcery in Papua New Guinea.” In its own statement, Amnesty International “cited reports that in July, the police arrested 29 members of a witch-hunting gang who were murdering and cannibalizing people they suspected of sorcery.”

But issuing statements is not enough. It will not make the problem disappear. Witch hunting is a social disease, rooted in local superstitious and irrational beliefs, that is ravaging many parts of the world. Just condemning the attacks and killings of alleged witches makes little or no difference to the problem. Some urgent action is needed. Some firm global response is required. The international community must take a more proactive approach to addressing this problem.

For a long time , the UN agencies and other international human rights bodies have kept silent and turned a blind eye on this burning issue, all in the name of ‘respecting’ the cultural beliefs of the people. The whole idea of accusing people of causing death and diseases through magic is a mistaken idea informed by fear and ignorance. This erroneous notion is at the root of witch crazes and hysteria. Witch hunting is a cultural practice that should be treated with uttermost contempt, not respect. Witch killing is a horrible criminal act that should not be condoned or tolerated anywhere in the world. The UN human rights office and other human rights agencies around the globe must speak out and act now!

Belief in witchcraft and sorcery is very strong in Papua New Guinea. Witch killing is widespread in this former Australian colony. Every year, hundreds of people, mainly women, are murdered due to witch beliefs. Women are made scapegoats of the ills many people in the country suffer. These killings take place mainly in rural communities where belief in superstition and magic is very strong.

Modern education and development, including the introduction in 1971 of the Sorcery Act by the Australian Colonial administration, have not succeeded in eradicating this harmful traditional practice. The government of Papua New Guinea lacks the political will to make witch hunts history in the Island. Like in India and in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, the authorities in Papua New Guinea have caved in to pressures, threats and intimidation from witch hunting gangs in the country.

Now, the government must rise up to its duty and responsibility. It needs to uphold the rule of law, provide protection and support to accused persons, and bring witch hunters to justice. The government needs to fulfill its responsibility to protect its citizens who are accused of sorcery from being abused or murdered by mobs and gangs. There is no excuse or justification for the government’s inability to tackle this problem.

There is an urgent need for a campaign to stop witch hunts in Papua New Guinea and help bring to an end this wave of violence ravaging the country. Witch hunting starts in the mind and any efforts to stamp it out will target the mindset of the people.

The notion of witchcraft evokes fear and panic in the minds of people who firmly believe in the magical cause of problems and misfortune. Any alleged witch is often perceived as an ‘enemy within’; as a wicked and evil person— as one who should be treated without mercy or compassion.

Public education and enlightenment are needed to change the mentality of the people of Papua New Guinea and get them to abandon the beliefs that drive them to commit these atrocious and savage crimes. To this end we have contacted a number of NGOs in Papua New Guinea, including the Business and Professional Women’s Association, ChildFund Papua New Guinea, East Sepik Council of Women, Family Health & Rural Improvement Program, and Family Voice Inc., in order to explore ways of prosecuting this important campaign. I hope that critically minded individuals and groups in the country will come forward and volunteer to execute this important task.

Skeptics and critical thinkers and all people of reason in Papua New Guinea need to rise up to the challenge of bringing end to witchcraft-related murders and other superstition-based abuses. Skeptics and critical thinkers in other parts of the world should support this initiative to ignite the flame of reason and scientific thinking in the country.

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