The recent sorcery related deaths of five people, including the hanging of a 13 year old boy, have highlighted the epidemic of sorcery related violence in Papua New Guinea (PNG). The population of this small pacific island nation is composed of various clans, the vast majority of whom inhabit remote villages with no access to running water, hospitals, or electricity. The belief in sorcery and witchcraft is locally known as ‘Sanguma’, and dates back centuries in the Pacific region. But in the last decade there has been a spike in sorcery related killings.
PNG Police and local activists, who help the victims of sorcery accusation related violence and torture, state that there are two main factors behind the spike in sorcery accusations and subsequent killings. One reason is that accusations of sorcery are used as a cover for personal vendettas. Officials of the PNG Police suspect that many accusations of sorcery are made as a result of personal enmity, because it provides a robust defence for murder in the eyes of the local community. Up until 2013, suspicion of sorcery was considered a legitimate defence for murder under the law. The Sorcery Act of 1971 was only repealed in 2013, after the brutal murder of a young mother shocked the nation. The 20 year old woman was accused of witchcraft after the death of a child in her community, after which a mob stripped her naked, cut her with machetes and then burnt her alive while hundreds of bystanders just watched it happen. After this horrific incident, PNG reinstated the death penalty for murder, and mandated that all sorcery related killings are to be treated as murder.
However, despite these reforms in the law sorcery related killings have continued unabated in PNG. To date no one has been convicted for a sorcery related killing. This is because ‘Sanguma’ is a belief deeply ingrained in the people of that nation. The biggest contributor to the rise of sorcery related killings is the lack of education and healthcare. The bulk of the population is uneducated and does not have access to proper healthcare, so when any unexpected problem or death occurs in a community it is immediately blamed upon witchcraft. People also fail to consider that many new diseases and ailments that are affecting their community members are a result of the relatively recent permeation of junk food and drugs in PNG. The Covid-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the accusations of sorcery being made.
The victims of these ridiculous accusations are almost always women. In July 2019, in the highland village of Karida, 10 women, 6 children and 2 unborn babies were hacked to death with machetes after being suspected of being witches. Attacks like this are common and extremely barbaric. The women accused of being witches are often gang-raped, beaten and burned before their bodies are butchered with knives.
The advent of social media in PNG has only made the epidemic of sorcery related violence and killings worse. Since the populace is largely uneducated fake news of alleged sorcerers and witches spreads fast. This can often be a death sentence for the few victims of sorcery based violence that police, military and local activists have managed to rescue. In some cases where news that such a killing is underway manages to get to police or military they have intervened to rescue the victims. But, this happens infrequently as often these killings happen too quickly or are happening in far flung remote areas. A victim that had been rescued and relocated far from her original area was attacked and mutilated after some individuals in her new area recognised her from a viral Facebook post accusing her of being a witch.
Papua New Guinea needs to urgently invest in educational awareness programmes to dispel the misinformation regarding diseases, as they are frequently interpreted as ‘Sanguma’. And it needs to invest in providing its people with education and healthcare so they are less likely to attribute everything to sorcery. Lastly, the law and order situation needs to be improved and murders prosecuted under the law.