SEATTLE — Cauldrons and spells are more than child’s play in many parts of the world where fear of sorcery permits terrible cruelty. The United Nations estimates that thousands of murders occur each year against victims of witchcraft accusations. Although accusers have traditionally targeted women, a disturbing trend has emerged of accusing children and more specifically, orphans, albinos and children with disabilities. Even with the data available on such crimes, the World Health Organization believes 80 percent of all related instances are not reported.
In many villages that are home to modern witch hunts, the community views the abuse or violence against a “witch” not as a crime, but rather as a task undertaken on behalf of the community. Many anthropologists believe that communities use the idea of the supernatural to cope with local hardships. For example, a bad harvest can be believed to be the result of a witch’s envy or grudge against a neighbor. Similarly, experts believe that despite genuine belief in witchcraft, relatives are able to kill members of their family with less hesitation using the need to protect the community as justification.
The traditional victim of abuse in the name of eradicating witchcraft has been older women, often widows. As Dr. Edward Miguel writes of the first witch trials in his 2005 study, “extreme weather – mainly heavy precipitation and low temperatures, which reduced crop yields – was often a proximate cause of witchcraft accusations in Europe and North America.” He argues that in many cases, poorer societies will kill weaker members of the family when they become a financial burden. His data shows that in sub-Saharan Africa, extreme rainfall that affects crop production corresponds with the presence of witch accusations and murders.
Accusers tend to target elderly women, who often lose their support system upon marrying and moving to their husband’s village. Aside from the fact that older, single women are more vulnerable, the statistics that show accusers target women five to one are indicative of gender-based violence. Young men who accuse “witches” may do so to gain a standing in the community, and older men tend to hold political importance, lessening their chance of accusation.
However, the newest trend in modern witchcraft trials has been to accuse children. Economic troubles in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the early 2000s, for example, resulted in expulsion of thousands of children from their homes. Of the estimated 25,000 to 50,000 kids on the streets of the DRC, the United Nations believes the majority to have been victims of witchcraft accusations. The famous preacher, Helen Ukpabio of Nigeria, has only exacerbated the problem by making the claim that children less than two years old who demonstrate natural behavior for their age, like crying at night or often running a fever, may work for the devil.
UNICEF blames urbanization and conflict for the ongoing violence, though overpopulation and the difficulty of raising children in poverty conditions has certainly not helped. Local politicians may refrain from pressuring their constituents to end the witch trials, afraid they’ll appear to be siding with the “witches.” Still, experts see solutions in improved assistance in the wake of extreme weather, pensions for the elderly and continued support for sustainable development.
– Erica Lignell
Sources: Berkeley, All Africa, CNN, BBC, UN, OHCHR, New York Times
Photo: Cauldrons and Cupcakes