In 2013 the deaths of two women in PNG accused of witchcraft shocked the world and prompted strong calls for action. But this year violence against other accused women is back in the news. What more could or should be done?
In 2013, extensive publicity given to the deaths of two women accused of witchcraft in Papua New Guinea (PNG) drew attention to the problem of sorcery and witchcraft accusation–related violence. The PNG Government, faced with mounting pressure to take action, responded by repealing the Sorcery Act 1971 and creating a new provision in the Criminal Code Act that provides that the intentional killing of another person on account of accusation that the person is practicing sorcery is guilty of wilful murder.
This year violence against women accused of witchcraft in the PNG Highlands again burst into the media with graphic images of the torture of several women and a man in Mendi in the Southern Highlands Province, and a horrifying film clip of women accused or witchcraft being brutally tortured in the Enga Province being posted on Facebook. The film clip had been circulating on the mobile phones of students at one of the local High Schools.
In response, the Prime Minister’s office released a statement noting how “…law enforcement agencies have to be proactive to prevent these incidents from occurring. But we also have to work closer between government and communities to change attitudes so we can stamp this out.” (Post Courier, Oct 21, 2015)
In the two years since 2013, following several national conferences on the issue, a committee led by the PNG Department of Justice and Attorney General (DJAG) has worked to develop a National Action Plan to address sorcery accusation related violence. The plan was approved in a National Executive Council (NEC) decision on 21 July, 2015. It adopts a comprehensive approach involving a number of government ministries and their departments along with a range of non-government organisations.
The Sorcery National Action Plan (SNAP), while approved, still requires implementation, and as the statement from the Prime Minister’s office notes, there is need for closer cooperation between the government and communities.
Bishop Don Lippert, Catholic Bishop of Mendi called for a conference as “A stand against sorcery related violence.” Over 200 people accepted his invitation and representatives from government agencies, police, courts, churches, women’s groups and community leaders from around Mendi as well as people from Oxfam and State Society and Governance in Melanesia Program, ANU gathered at the Catholic Diocese of Mendi on 28 October, 2015. Ambassador of the United States of American to Papua New Guinea, Walter North attended as a special guest and speaker at the event.
The Mendi conference brought out the strong desire of many community and provincial government representatives for a united response to deal with what appears to be escalating sorcery accusation related violence. Group and panel discussions revealed a felt need for better laws to deal with the actions of those who incite violence through making accusations, of those carrying out the violence, and of the diviners or “glasman” who profit from these cases and are reckless about the damage they cause through identifying people they claim to be witches.
There was a sense that communities and police need to develop a mechanism to better work together to ensure that the justice process is followed in sorcery/witchcraft cases so those torturing, assaulting and killing are charged, prosecuted and convicted.
Obstacles to this were identified as mutual distrust between community and police, mutual blame with regard to who is responsible for past failings, and also fear of retaliation for being involved in such cases as witness, complainant or prosecutor. It appears that compensation payments dissuade people from pursuing justice through the courts. It was noted how a regular law-and-order approach (for example, recruiting more police and increasing penalties) is not likely to be effective unless coupled with other interventions that influence life in the communities.
The conference agreed on the importance of developing a local action plan for communities for when people are accused of sorcery, with the primary purpose of ensuring that violence is not used. Such a plan would need to consider the different stages involved (suspicion, accusation, start of torture), who can and should intervene at these different stages, how can a critical mass of people be brought together to say “stop”, and what outside support is available and how can it be accessed.
Other proposals at the Mendi conference included the importance of conducting awareness about the implications of belief in sorcery and the problems of using violent means in the family, in schools and amongst the community, a suggestion for the establishment of a safe house for women who are fleeing violence and practical plans for provide support (physical, emotional and spiritual) and reintegration for those accused of sorcery and their families.
It remains to be seen to what extent the government and other stakeholders commit to and implement the Sorcery National Action Plan approved by the National Government. It will act as framework for reporting and a channel for government funding. However, the Mendi Conference has shown how many people at the local and Provincial level are not waiting for the National Government, but are prepared to take practical measures to take forward measures to reduce and hopefully eliminate sorcery accusation related violence in the PNG Highlands.