Sorcery or witchcraft is an ongoing problem in Papua New Guinea and with the latest sorcery-related killing in PNG’s Western Highlands province yesterday, church leaders and development agencies like OXFAM are calling for better legislation and education to help stem the problem before it grows out of control.
On February 6, a 20-year-old mother was tortured and burnt alive in front of hundreds of people in Mt Hagen, part of Papua New Guinea’s Western Highlands province.
The woman was accused of killing a six-year old boy through sorcery. Angry relatives and supporters then tortured her with a hot iron rod, stripped her naked, bound her hands and legs together and threw her onto a pile of burning tyres.
Many people in the remote Highlands of Papua New Guinea and other parts of Melanesia continue to believe in sorcery and black magic. They do not accept natural causes as an explanation for misfortune, illness, accidents or death. Instead they attribute them to forms of sorcery and witchcraft, called ‘sanguma’ in the local pidgin language.
People accused of sorcery are considered to have deliberately caused misfortune. And because the fear of sorcery is greater than the fear of breaking the law, people believed to have committed black magic are often subject to shocking ‘payback’ murders, torture or punishments.
Furthermore, those who are victims of sorcery accusations and attacks are often the most vulnerable in society – women particularly those with independent or progressive views, widows without male kin, elderly people, and even those who are resented or envied.
According to their website, sorcery is a concern for Oxfam because these such beliefs can cause violence and conflict and destroy individuals families and whole communities. Belief in sorcery and the like also undermines development efforts and adds another layer of complexity to a society already struggling with unemployment, chronic gender-based violence, HIV and AIDS and tribal conflict.
A recent Oxfam report into the issue concluded that education was essential in addressing the problem and suggested that existing legal parameters for dealing with accusers of sorcery and the accused themselves need to be reformed.
With news of the latest killing, the head of the Gut Nius Lutheran Church in PNG, Bishop David Piso, also said that the government needed to come up with a law to stop even more sorcery-related killings. He said that the problem is worsening and that many innocent people have been victims. He called for the government to take more urgent action.