25 November marks the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Age UK asked its sister organisation, HelpAge International, to write a blog highlight the shocking practice of witchcraft allegations resulting in terrible acts of violence against older women.
In many parts of the world, older women, and sometimes older men, are still accused of witchcraft and subjected to violent attacks as a result. Recent media reports have highlighted the problem in Burkina Faso, Ghana, India, Kenya, Malawi, Nepal and Tanzania though the problem is not limited to these countries.
In most of these countries, belief in witchcraft is common, with people from all sections of society sharing this belief regardless of their level of education, socio-economic group or ethnic origin.
It is usually the most discriminated against and marginalised who are accused ofwitchcraft because they are least able to defend themselves or because they are considered of little value to society and therefore a burden to it in times of hardship. One of the most vulnerable groups is older women.
Reliable data on the number of accusations and violent attacks is hard to come by. Government departments tend not to release the data and it is commonly accepted that these crimes are underreported. In Tanzania, for example, the Tanzania Legal and Human Rights Centre reported an average of 517 killings per year between 2004 and 2009.
Witchcraft accusations are often generated by wider problems in the community. Accusations can be linked to disputes between neighbours or family over land and inheritance. Traditional healers are often requested by those who have had misfortune, illness, or death in the family, to point out who has been “bewitching” them. More often than not, the traditional healer points to an older, vulnerable woman in the village.
The question is then, what is the best way to protect older women from these accusations and related violence and ensure that they are able to seek justice for any crimes committed against them?
HelpAge International and its local NGO partners in Tanzania have focused on community-based interventions. These include training people in women’s and widows’ rights and misconceptions about HIV and other illnesses; training community members to provide paralegal advice on land, inheritance and marriage rights; working with religious and local government leaders; and influencing the behaviour of traditional healers.
On a more practical level, local communities have built houses for women who have been threatened or attacked. Fuel-efficient stoves have been provided to show that red eyes – often associated with witchcraft – are actually caused by a lifetime of working over smoky cooking fires.
These community-based programmes have shown positive results. There has been a 99 per cent reduction in the killing of older women in the programme areas and a significant reduction in disputes over land rights, inheritance and matrimonial issues.
Introducing or reforming legislation to criminalise accusations of witchcraft has also been suggested. To understand more about this as a potential solution, HelpAge requested guidance from lawyers on the use of this type of legislation. The findings of their research, which covered 9 countries, highlighted the inadequacies of specific witchcraft-related laws.
Very often witchcraft legislation fails to prevent accusations of witchcraft or protect those accused from violence. It rarely provides redress for the victims of violent crimes. Witchcraft-related laws are rarely enforced and there are concerns around whether people are getting fair trials or being unlawfully imprisoned under this type of legislation.
HelpAge believes that community interventions that empower older people and address the conditions that lead to accusations have more likelihood of success than concentrating on witchcraft-specific legislation.
However, more does need to be done to strengthen justice systems and make them more accountable to those who seek justice. Inheritance laws should be revised if they are found to discriminate against women and widows and acts of violence against people accused of witchcraft should be prosecuted under existing criminal laws, such as assault, theft, damage to property or murder.
This guest blog was contributed by Bridget Sleap, Senior Rights Policy Adviser at HelpAge International.