By Alisa Tang
BANGKOK (TrustLaw) - The latest witch hunt in Papua New Guinea’s South Bougainville district was triggered by the death of a former teacher, a man. As often happens in this southwest Pacific nation, villagers looking for the cause of a respected man’s death last week grabbed their firearms, knives and axes and tracked down the ‘witches’ they held responsible — all women.
One woman - a retired school teacher and prominent women’s advocate - was beheaded, said Kate Schuetze, Brisbane-based Pacific researcher for Amnesty International.
Another woman - who suffered a severe laceration to her neck and is coughing up blood - and her two daughters remain captive in the village, Schuetze said. Three others have been taken to a medical centre in Bana district, where Lopele is located.
“We’ve today issued an urgent call on the Papua New Guinea government and regional police to allocate all necessary resources to ensure the safety of those six women,” she said on Wednesday in a telephone interview from Brisbane.
The Lopele witch hunt is not an isolated incident: When misfortune or death befall the tribal communities of Papua New Guinea, accusations of witchcraft, sorcery and black magic are commonly made, often ending with a witch hunt, torture and killing. The accused are usually women - sometimes the oldest or weakest, maybe a widow, and at other times, the strongest who has fought for women’s rights.
To help the captives in Lopele, the government sent one policeman.
“The response of the police to this and other appalling similar incidents in Bougainville and Papua New Guinea has so far been seriously inadequate,” Schuetze said.
Papua New Guinea’s 6.5 million people are among the world’s most heterogeneous populations, many of them subsistence farmers living in small communities that speak one of the country’s 800-plus languages.
Disputes over land, women and even pigs have sparked tribal conflict and even civil war in parts of the country, while domestic violence and violence against women are widespread.
Sorcery, black magic and witchcraft are ingrained in the culture, as are the punishments meted out.
“It’s a very big problem. It’s a very sensitive issue… (Christian) churches are trying to address the problem, but it’s very deeply rooted in the belief system of the people,” said Jack Urame, director of the Melanesian Institute in Papua New Guinea’s Eastern Highlands province.
The institute has extensively researched sorcery, and Urame says he reads about a murder in the newspapers at least once a month. While there are male victims, the majority are women.
“Normally when people die of sickness or disease, people blame sorcery or witchcraft. Even medical reasons, people don’t believe,” Urame told TrustLaw by telephone.
“The traditional belief is very, very strong… This is the way people see the world. It’s the way they explain sickness and death in their own cultural belief system.”
It is so strong that it is enshrined in law in the 1971 Sorcery Act, which punishes those practising sorcery with up to two years in prison and allows murderers to appeal against their sentences by alleging black magic was involved.
“The government is trying to repeal the old Sorcery Act and come up with something completely new to criminalise sorcery killings,” Urame said.
“It will take a long time. It’s a matter of awareness and education… The entire community is behind these sorts of things, and the police feel powerless. According to the people, to remove a sorcerer or witch is protecting the community. That is their belief.”
JUSTICE AND RIGHT TO LIFE
In February, 20-year-old Kepari Leniata was burned alive in front of a crowd in the central city of Mount Hagen by relatives of a 6-year-old boy she was accused of using sorcery to kill. Law enforcement officials tried to intervene, but failed, according to a statement from the UN human rights office.
After Leniata’s death, “local people started to say, maybe we should be speaking out about this,” and that might mark a turning point, said Schuetze, who recently returned from a month-long research trip in Papua New Guinea for Amnesty.
PNG’s Constitutional and Law Reform Commission called on the government in March to repeal the Sorcery Act, while the Cabinet last week approved the Family Protection Bill.
Amnesty urged the government to follow through on both measures, by repealing the sorcery law and implementing the Family Protection Bill as a measure to prevent violence against women. The government also must ensure that police do their job, it said.