Violence against women is a reality in many countries. In some, it is not only present but also culturally valid and accepted as the norm. Acts of violence still take place on a daily basis and the perpetrators are usually members of the household.

It has been witnessed that gender based violence against women has its roots in patriarchy albeit violence is induced on women by both men and women. Some acts of gender based violence arise not merely out of a patriarchal mind-set but also out of superstitious thinking, out of low literacy and unawareness, and out of irrational backward thinking, like accusations of witchcraft. While this may sound like a tale from pre-medieval times, it is till date commonly practiced in parts of Asia and Africa.

Accusations of witchcraft are baseless allegations without concrete evidence that a person is a practicing witch. In rural areas, where people believe in traditional healing and would choose a shaman over a doctor, the belief in surreal activities or magic is very strong. People place faith in other people to magically heal them, to ward off any evils from their lives, and also to ensure prosperity. At the same time, they also believe some women can, by the use of magical powers, ensure harm to them. These women are accused of being witches capable of killing their cattle, causing harm to their family, and coming in the way of prosperity.

The women usually accused of witchcraft have familiar traits: they belong to lower socio-economic strata, they are mostly vulnerable and incapable of self-defense, and have no social support. Women already weakly placed in the society are easy targets. These women are then beaten, burnt, made to consume human excrement, stripped of their clothes and dignity and walked around the villages, among many other atrocious, inhuman actions. The passers-by and other gatherers stand and watch the commotion happily because for them, the cause of their bad omen and bad luck is now dealt with.

Apart from superstitions, such accusations occur for other reasons. Some single women own property and this becomes an opportunity for other people to grab the said land. In patriarchal societies, women are usually powerless and to live without a male head in the family makes them even more vulnerable to attacks by other people. In case of families belonging to lower socio-economic strata, even the men are powerless against the influential people. Similarly, women are accused of being witches even to settle scores against them and very commonly also when they reject sexual advances made towards them by other males.

The superstitious belief of the mass is used as a tool by other manipulators to cause harm to unfortunate women. Sometimes, even the family members turn against the victim, ruthlessly killing her because they genuinely believe she is a practitioner of witchcraft. All of this is obviously based on speculation, hate, intrigue and conspiracy, and has no basis because in the first place, such things are illogical. However, the magnitude of this belief is so strong that it ends up killing people.

These instances frequently occur in the uneducated sectors of the society, but is also prevalent among the educated people. Even the supposedly educated people, like teachers, are involved in such activities, once again proving that only getting education does not ensure the riddance of such phenomenon. When the victim seek help from the police, them being believers of such malpractices do not protect the victim. In turn, they are physically abused or psychologically tormented to confess to the “crime” they did not commit, and punished. The victims choose to confess than to be beaten to death or have their children be beaten to pulp in front of their own eyes. Despite confessing, their mistreatment and torture does not end and they are abused more.

The effect of these incidents the survivors is very grave. Most of them suffer from physical deformities induced after the episodes. Lynching of a victim by a mob of determined people leave her severely damaged not only physically but also mentally, emotionally and psychologically. Most women lose their body parts, and almost all of them lose their sanity and any will to live. A lot of the victims have been driven to suicide because the trauma of such horrendous acts leaves a lasting impact on them.

It seems simple that they should seek help, especially when there are so many governmental and non-governmental organisations working on women protection issues along with scores of local, national and international laws and conventions existing to ensure such atrocities do not take place. While the concept of seeking help is easy the victims are not able to get any because firstly, the victims do not have that kind of power. They are usually helpless and powerless against the people who cause harm to them. Secondly, they are also unaware about what measures they can take to protect themselves. Even if they are, it is unavailable to them because they have no access to even a police station.

It cannot be denied that some women do receive treatment and can lead their lives again. A lot of institutions work towards curbing such acts of violence and the victims receive all kinds of necessary aids. This act of accusing women to be witches and mistreating them is rendered illegal by the law. However, despite these efforts, a lot of the victims die and if not, reintegrating in to the society for them again is extremely difficult. The perpetrators are many in number. This makes it very difficult for the victims to receive justice, because all of the perpetrators are not punished and they continue to roam freely in the society. In fact, a lot of these cases go unreported.

These acts are plenty in number but so are the laws and protection measures. However, what comes in between is the superstitious belief and magical thinking presently deeply in the society, mostly among the rural communities. This is why these acts still continue to take place in today’s date. While the world is progressing on so many fronts, the fact that newspapers have a story covering victims accused of witchcraft every day is very unsettling. It is only through empowering of the weaker women that such acts can be stopped completely because the laws do not work where the people are so superstitiously misguided.

Aditi Aryal

Aryal is a student of Social Science and writes about social and developmental issues pertaining to exclusion, inequalities, and gender disparities in the South Asian context.

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