Guinea Pigs: Single Women Targeted In South Pacific Witch Hunts

Lest you thought witch-hunting was confined to 17th century America, medieval Europe or modern-day Tanzania, Ramita Navai reports in The Independent on the growing problem of witch-hunting in Papua New Guinea.

She says:

A shocking increase in witch-hunt deaths in Papua New Guinea has prompted the government to launch a parliamentary commission of inquiry with a view to toughening the law. Joe Mek Teine, the chairman of the nation's law reform commission, has publicly declared that sorcery killings are "getting out of hand". Most witch hunts happen in the Highlands, the remote mountainous interior wracked by centuries of tribal wars and blood feuds. Contact with the outside world was only established in the 1930s, when some of the many ethnic groups were still living stone-age existences. Although there are no official statistics on sorcery killings, more than 50 were reported to the police in just two Highland provinces last year.

Apparently, a couple a year are fine, but they're getting more common, so it's an issue.

In matter of fact, though, it's not that they're becoming more common, it's that their commonness is becoming more visible outside remote areas of the region.

A worrying new development is that the crime, which has historically been a rural phenomenon, is now spreading to urban areas as families are driven out of villages by poverty and tribal fighting, and into towns and cities. Mount Hagen, the largest city in the Highlands, has recently been rocked by a wave of witch killings, and there have even been cases reported in the capital, Port Moresby.

In other words, the killings might not actually be increasing in number, they're just increasing in visibility.

The reported root causes are much the same as those behind the witch hunts in Tanzania.

Witch hunts nearly always occur after a death or an illness of a community member. "Natural causes for death or illness are just not accepted," said Pastor Jack Urame, a researcher at the Melanesian Institute and one of the country's leading experts on sorcery killings. "So whenever someone dies in a village, a person must blamed," he said. According to Mr Urame the victims are typically older women or women on their own, who have no extended family to defend them. Witch hunts can also be used as a pretext to settle scores or land disputes he said.

Hari identified another reason in his research:

The victims are almost invariably old women, living alone. These women are frightening anomalies here: they have a flicker of financial independence denied to all other females. It has to be stopped.

In both cases, the supposed witches are to some very minor degree defying social norms of the community by remaining unmarried (whether through choice, widowhood or accident) and the social discord caused by death and disease are laid at their doorstep, simultaneously resolving the community's discomfort with women defying the patriarchal order of things and finding a scapegoat for the death and/or disease visited on the community.

Witch Hunts, Murder And Evil In Papua New Guinea [The Independent]

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