Every year, thousands of people are accused of witchcraft and face persecution, abuse, and even death. Now the United Nations is organizing to defend victims of witch hunts.
A woman from the Kukuo Witch Camp in northern Ghana. Photo by PACIFIC PRESS / Alamy Stock Photo
In Ghana, women accused of witchcraft are hounded out of their communities and forced to live in isolated "witch camps". They are the lucky ones.
All over the world, allegations of witchcraft can result in brutal torture, abduction, and murder. This month, a groundbreaking workshop will take place at the UN office in Geneva to discuss this kind of witchcraft-related abuses. It will be the first of its kind held by the international organization, and is the first discussion to take place at any international level.
According to the UN, reports of witch hunts are on the rise, and cases are becoming more violent and prevalent across the globe. Experts and academics hope that the conference will raise awareness of the phenomenon so that it can be better understood as a human rights problem and integrated into the UN's approach to humanitarian issues.
"Witchcraft beliefs are encountered on virtually all continents," explains Dr. Charlotte Baker, who launched the upcoming meeting with funding from Lancaster University. "Globally, witchcraft accusations and persecution have resulted in serious violations of human rights including beatings, banishment, cutting of body parts, amputation of limbs, torture and murder."
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Witch hunts haven't featured prominently on the radar of human rights organizations, in part because of the difficulty of defining what witchcraft actually means across different cultures. A spokesperson for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights told Broadly, "Statistics are not easy to come by, but it is known that every year, thousands of people are accused as witches, often abused, cast out of their families and communities and in many cases murdered."
Workshop co-organizer Gary Foxcroft is the executive director of the Witchcraft and Human Rights Network (WHRN), an international organization that seeks to highlight the rise in these violent witch hunts. "The failure of the international community to acknowledge the massive scale of these horrific human rights abuses has allowed them to spread like a virus across the world," he says.
Foxcroft explains that getting slapped with the charge of witchcraft is easier than it seems. "Job losses, illnesses, accidents, relationship breakdowns, and property damage can see a vulnerable person placed at the centre of a witch hunt," he says, "but it's estimated that around 70 percent of witchcraft accusations are triggered by public health problems, like the spread of infectious diseases. People look for someone to blame. It is almost exclusively the most vulnerable members of the community who are accused. Very rarely is it men."
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The UN has identified women, children, the elderly, and people with disabilities as those most at risk of witch-related abuse. Foxcroft says that the violence can look different from country to country, from "elderly women being beaten, tortured, and killed in places like Kenya, Papua New Guinea, and India" to abuse in Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where it is "mainly children who are targeted." According to the WHRN, those with albinism, autism and Down's syndrome have been targeted by such accusations, while a claim against an older woman is often used as an excuse to acquire her land and property.
What these cases share in common, however, is the startling lack of response from local judicial systems and the resulting impunity for the perpetrators. Branding someone a witch has historically been used to justify abuse, particularly by patriarchal religious leaders (see: the infamous Salem witch trials of the 1690s), and experts like Foxcroft believe that the spread of witchcraft-related human rights abuses is exacerbated once more by faith leaders who spread malevolent beliefs in witchcraft to exploit people or extract money from the fearful public.
According to a 2009 report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the DRC alone is home to thousands of churches that make money off exorcisms. Despite the fact that the government outlawed accusations of witchcraft against minors in 2005, up to 50,000 children are still thought to be imprisoned in religious buildings awaiting deliverance ceremonies, where they may face abuse, torture, and potential death under the pretext of spiritual cleansing.
"Attackers are often driven by both financial gain and cultural, social, and spiritual contexts that facilitate the myths they propagate, such as the false notion that the body parts of people with albinism can produce wealth and good luck," explains co-organizer Ikponwosa Ero, the first-ever UN independent expert on human rights for people with albinism.
Ero explains that there is a general lack of awareness that this is prevalent, and minimal understanding of what needs to be done to stop it. Positive change needs to involve both legal and cultural reform: "Law enforcement alone cannot eradicate beliefs," Ero says, "but public discourse, social support for vulnerable people (e.g. those with albinism) and positive representations of their conditions, could."
But with the sort of global shifts that can trigger witchcraft accusations—natural disasters, famine, war, and political unrest—seeming to occur with more frequency than ever, efforts to combat the persecution taking place in the wake desperately need to be stepped up. According to the 2009 UN report, these kind of crises can all too easily lead to "the collapse of community-based safety nets."
"During these critical periods of indeterminacy, when old and new forms of social organizations are in a state of flux," the report states. "The anxieties generated are most likely to be translated into societal fears and suspicions." In Angola and the DRC, decades of conflict has caused the breakdown of community networks and families, contributing to the increase in witchcraft accusations against children.
The UN organizers hope that the event will help increase the understanding of witchcraft-related violence among everyone who has a part to play in stopping the abuse—from police and lawyers to national ambassadors and state legislators. Most importantly, Foxcroft says, it will be "the start of a longer process that looks to find the solutions needed to stop more innocent people being tortured and killed."