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Sorting through the witchcraft myths

Burning or stabbing people accused of witchcraft conjures up images from hundreds of years ago, yet the practice continues today and is even growing in some remote areas of Papua New Guinea.

More than 600 people were reported killed and another 340 wounded in witchcraft-related attacks in Papua New Guinea (PNG) over the last 20 years, according to research by ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

While it’s difficult to determine whether these attacks are on the rise throughout PNG, the violence has increased in some regions and seems to be more extreme and involves more torture, said CAP Associate Professor Miranda Forsyth, who has been studying this issue in PNG and throughout Melanesia

"People absolutely believe sorcery is real," she said. "There is a lot of fear, a deep sense of threat and insecurity that come from those beliefs. So then, how do you respond to that?"

Over the past few years, Forsyth helped organise conferences that focused on sorcery-accusation killing and possible responses to lessen the violence. She contributed to efforts by PNG’s Department of Justice and Attorney General to develop a National Action Plan to Address Sorcery Accusation-Related Violence in PNG. The plan is based on the principle of first addressing the violence associated with sorcery accusations, rather than trying to change belief systems.

Forsyth is also leading a four-year project collecting data in two PNG provinces where local recorders will document accusations of witchcraft – both those that lead to violence and those that do not. This will be supplemented by a six-month collection of data from police and courts on sorcery-related violence, and in-depth reports through interviews to create the first comprehensive study of this type of crime in PNG.

In 1971, PNG adopted the Sorcery Act, which criminalised the practice of sorcery and witchcraft – including acts that purported to be supernatural – and provided a mitigating defence to those committing murder on the basis of a belief in sorcery. However, the law was seldom used.

PNG later repealed the law as ineffective and introduced a specific provision into the criminal code that killings linked to accusations of sorcery would be treated as murder. However, many in PNG remain unclear about how to respond to sorcery.

"There is a lot of confusion among the population in Papua New Guinea about what the law is and whether or not violence perpetrated against sorcerers is the right thing to do," Forsyth said.

People who make accusations have various motives, and some hold a real belief that they have been harmed by witchcraft. Other times, people make such accusation to acquire land or goods, get out of debts or in order to hide their own personal shortcomings.

Over time, the situations surrounding the violence can change.

In the Lake Kopiago region, women have become targeted, including older widows who lack male kin, divorcees living independently with their children, and females who are perceived to be doing men’s work or not accepting male advances, said Nicole Haley, an ANU researcher who has studied witchcraft in the region.

Torture has increased there as well. Previously, the accused were publicly interrogated and urged to confess their misdeeds, which were thought to take away sorcerers’ powers and reform them, Haley said. They also were required to pay compensation for their acts.

Today, accusations often are more about punishment and retribution than confession. Where interrogators once were community leaders or relatives of the accused, now they often are young men with guns that have little standing within the communities, Haley said.

But the violent incidents surrounding sorcery can vary widely by region, Forsyth said. In Bougainville, for example, most of the victims of violence were men, especially in the wake of the island’s civil war that ended in 1998.

A common denominator across all PNG regions is that death or sickness usually triggers accusation violence. Sorcery accusations are often seen as a manifestation of deep social and economic stresses caused by failing health and education services, increasing economic disparities and population displacements.

PNG’s action plan adopted in 2015 to lessen sorcery-related violence promised to address symptoms related to these socio-economic problems. Specifically, provisions included assurances that attacks would be investigated and prosecuted, the development of strategies for mediating accusations at the community level, the improvement of communications about what the law says, and improvements in how health workers provided information to patients and their families about disease processes.

While the plan takes a good step towards reducing violence, the PNG government has not provided the resources to back it up, Forsyth said. For example, about 15,000 perpetrators were involved in witchcraft-related attacks over the last two decades but only 115 received sentences, according to data from newspaper reports and judgments.

PNG is not the only country facing sorcery-accusation violence, with incidents also reported in parts of Africa and Asia. The United Nations held a workshop on the topic in Geneva in 2017 that was the first international-level conference to address sorcery-accusation violence as a human-rights issue, Forsyth said.

"I think the conference got the issue of sorcery-related violence away from being seen as a bizarre or marginal issue and into the mainstream international human-rights agenda. It’s given it a legitimacy – people in the global North don’t just laughingly dismiss it anymore."

Research funded by: Australia Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

Related research: Dr Miranda Forsyth


Updated:  24 April, 2017/Responsible Officer:  Dean, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team