To most Americans, conversations surrounding witchcraft and sorcery seem antiquated. Such hysteria appears to be from a different time, a puritanical period in the earliest colonies that persists only through something like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. However, in Papua New Guinea, where belief in the preternatural is widespread, discussions of witchcraft— called sanguma in the local language—is quite common.
In a community where any misfortune can be blamed on a person with little tangible evidence, human rights violations are rampant, and systems of fair trial and justice crumble. The sorcery-related violence that comes as a consequence of this belief in the supernatural often translates to gender-related violence. The most targeted citizens are often the weakest in a society: women, widows, and the elderly, those who are unable to adequately protect against violence.
The constant fear of being targeted tears communities apart. Those convicted with crimes related to witchcraft can face sexual violence, live burial, stoning, drowning, mutilation, and beating. Should a convict survive his or her punishment, they often also lose their property, livelihood, and homes. In the Simbu province in Papua New Guinea, roughly 10 to 15 percent of the population has been banished from the community in consequence of accusations made against them of witchcraft and sorcery.
Reversing the deeply ingrained systems of belief has proved to be difficult. However, alleviating poverty in Papua New Guinea and performing interventions to prevent needless violence, would make their communities safer and more prosperous. Organizations like Oxfam New Zealand are working to better understand New Guinea’s culture and what motivates sorcery accusations in order to help reshape the culture’s attitudes at an institutional level. Oxfam seeks to change laws and promote intervention between citizens that might prevent sorcery-related violence.
– Anna Purcell