New Social Compact

Rethinking The Issue of Witchcraft-related Violence

On 12 July 2021, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted the historic resolution on the elimination of harmful practices related to accusations of witchcraft and ritual attacks. The resolution urges the member states to not only condemn the hazardous practices, but also to take tangible actions to abolish them. Out of unfamiliarity towards the issue, one might find the resolution to be irrelevant within today’s context or perhaps label it as ‘peculiar’ – when in fact, the issue of witchcraft-related violence does exist in the present day and is urgent to be discussed.

 The term that will be used throughout this piece – ‘witchcraft-related violence’ – specifically refers to the direct violence (including but not limited to physical and verbal assaults) perpetrated against people who are accused of being affiliated to witchcraft. ‘Witchcraft’ itself is generally defined as the use of magic for malevolent purposes, with ‘witches’ being its executants. This article seeks to further examine the problems of witchcraft-related violence by elaborating its underlying cultural and structural roots which sustain the existing direct violence.

Neither a myth nor a legend: the gruesome reality of today’s ‘witch hunts’

Witchcraft, witch hunts, and witch trials made up significant portions in the historical cases of atrocities, from the hysteria of European witch hunting which killed roughly over 80,000 people between 1500-1660, to the infamous Salem Witch Trials in colonial Massachusetts during 1692-1693. Today, similar phenomena can be found mostly in the Global South countries. South Africa, Rwanda, Tanzania, Ghana, Nigeria, and many other states across Africa have witnessed the extreme violence faced by women, elderly, and children accused of possessing witchcraft abilities. Perceived as the ‘embodiment of evil spirits’ who bring misfortunes to the community, the victims are subjected to violent beatings which endanger their lives.

 African Child Policy Forum in its 2022 report revealed that every year, hundreds of thousands of African children are afflicted by witchcraft accusations resulting in the acts of ostracism and other kinds of abuse. Witchcraft-related violence is also prevalent in Asian countries such as Nepal, India, and Papua New Guinea. People labeled as bokshy (witches) in Nepal – commonly women – are brutally forced to eat human feces and publicly humiliated through nude parades. In India, during 2014-2020, the state of Jharkhand has seen the killings of 173 people who were wrongly deemed as witches. Recently in July 2022, nine Papua New Guinea female residents in the Enga Province were accused of sorcery after trucking boss was found dead among bushes, medically suspected to be from a stroke or heart attack. Nonetheless, the members of his tribe put the blame on nine women – one was pregnant, two were elderly over sixty years old – who later on were ruthlessly tormented through an arson attack and public torture.  

 The above-mentioned horrifying stories are just some examples taken from a way bigger pool of cases. Many cases even went unreported, particularly the ones happening in remote areas. However, the given examples can be the evidence that witchcraft-related violence is not a myth or a legend in the present day. They are real-life horrors that many individuals unfortunately have to suffer from.  

Often normalized, sometimes overlooked: the supporting culture and structure of witchcraft-related violence

 Accusation, declaration, and persecution are three stages of the witch-hunting phenomena leading up to the witchcraft-related violence. A pivotal question thus emerges: Why does one accuse someone else of being a witch? Although each culture has different stories and history, the accusations of witchcraft across different communities tend to follow a similar pattern of thoughts: when a mishap happens, witchcraft plays a role behind it. That train of thoughts does make sense within the society where the beliefs of superstitions and magic still hold a dominant significance, such as in the discussed African and Asian countries.

 For example, the African traditional beliefs underline that misfortunes affecting certain individuals or community is caused by the witchcraft casted towards them by someone within a close proximity; making relatives, friends, or people from the same tribe often fall into the accusations. To avoid more misfortunes, it is believed that those alleged witches should be harshly punished or exterminated. This situation is exacerbated by the belief that witches can perform unconsciously, as if they are able to cast malicious spells or execute dreadful rituals without being aware of doing it – therefore lowering the chances of the accused to defend themselves and manipulating them into believing the allegations. As the accusation turns into a declaration and, consequently, a persecution of the alleged witches, the surrounding culture makes way to condone the vicious actions.

 The cultural beliefs which justify those witchcraft-related violence can be seen as a cultural violence – the aspects of culture which can serve as legitimacy or justification basis of direct or structural violence. Cultural violence transforms the moral color of an act from ‘red’ to ‘green’ or ‘yellow’; from ‘wrong’ to ‘right’ or at least ‘tolerable’. It can change the wrongful act of ‘killing innocent people falsely accused as witches’ to the heroic one of ‘protecting the community from danger by getting rid of evil spirits and those who embody them’.

Recognizing cultural violence is crucial since it highlights the notion of ‘aspects of culture’ that are violent instead of labeling the whole culture to be violent. It is unwise to overgeneralize that the traditional beliefs and practices related to magic and supernatural power in the African and Asian countries are all related to violence – some of them are done for benevolent objectives through peaceful means. That is also why the UN resolution points out that States should carefully differentiate between the harmful cultural beliefs and practices and the ‘lawful and legitimate’ ones. In the case of witchcraft-related violence, it is the harmful aspects of culture – cultural violence – which underpin them.

 Cultural violence alone is insufficient to explain the widespread witchcraft-related violence across the Global South today. Structural violence – wherein the violence is ‘built into structure’, manifested in the structure where certain groups of people are deprived of their potential – should be taken into account. Structural violence, or simply referred to as ‘social injustice’ in some contexts, is an integral part of witchcraft-related violence.  

 First, witchcraft accusations are often the scapegoat for misfortunes – poverty, job layoffs, illness, death, and others – which rationally can be explained as the impacts of unfair structure that mostly benefit the powerful topdogs. In the societal structure filled by severe socio-economic inequalities and inadequate access and facilities of public services, people began to put the blame on witchcraft out of not only beliefs, but also their pent-up anger and desperations. A research by Edward Miguel on Poverty and Witch Killing argued that, “Poverty and violence often go hand in hand,” taking the case study of Tanzania where failure of harvests due to extreme rainfalls prompted the ‘witch killing’ cases to double, as many women were murdered after being blamed for witchcraft. In brief, witchcraft-related violence often becomes the ‘coping mechanism’ of those aggrieved by structural violence and its evident manifestations around them.

 Second, the violent structure of society allows the already vulnerable groups to be disproportionately victimized by witchcraft-related violence. Patriarchy is one of, if not the most, prominently problematic structure here. Witchcraft-related violence is sometimes referred to as gender-based violence in disguise, considering how women have been the major victims of witch hunts – both historically and presently. Women are highly prone to witchcraft accusations and, gender identity aside, frequently they are already put at powerless positions due to their socio-economic status. For instance, Dalit women in India are already susceptible to ill-treatment because of Dalit being the lowest caste within Brahmanical beliefs, and their gender identity further aggravates their condition – this intersectionality of Dalit women results in them being the primary targets of witchcraft-related violence committed by the upper caste people.

On dissolving the iceberg of violence

Johan Galtung contextualized ‘violence’ through the violence triangle framework. One of the triangle’s common interpretations depicts direct violence as the top corner of the triangle; while structural and cultural violence (indirect violence) are the two bottom parts. The analogy of the iceberg phenomenon is often used as the portrayal – direct violence is the visible tip of the iceberg, supported by indirect violence as the massive hidden ice chunks beneath the surface. Thus, the actions to eradicate violence should go beyond tackling the noticeable direct violence.

 Expulsions and all forms of persecutions towards people accused of witchcraft are direct violence sustained by unjust structure and legitimized by harmful aspects of culture. Hence, the complete abolishment of witchcraft-related violence requires more than particular laws and regulations to ban them. Efforts to transform the violent structure and culture into peaceful ones should also be taken. Though they will take time, sustainable impacts can gradually be achieved. All in all, the prohibition and punishments – even the legal ones – of witchcraft-related violence would not holistically solve the issues if the structural and cultural violence sustaining them still persist to exist.  

Maurizka Callista Chairunnisa

A Bachelor of International Relations concentrating in Peace and Conflict Studies from Universitas Gadjah Mada, Indonesia. Currently works as an Undergraduate Program Assistant and a Teaching Assistant in the Department of International Relations Universitas Gadjah Mada.

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