Sorcery — like something out of Harry Potter movies— receives a lot of focus around fall, especially on Halloween. It is a common lighthearted joke of the season. However, sorcery, magic and witches are a strong legitimate belief in some cultures, especially in Papua New Guinea. Sorcery, also known as “sanguma,” is a life or death issue in Papua New Guinea — sorcery killings in Papua New Guinea are all too common.
These murders rarely make the news, and police protection is unreliable. Those mainly accused of witchcraft and sorcery are women, which leads to gender-based violence in Papua New Guinea. Since 2013, Papua New Guinea’s government has been attempting to stop this modern-day witch hunt. Despite their efforts, it’s harder than it seems. One main obstacle is the lack of awareness. This problem only gained global attention in 2017. The people of Papua New Guinea accused Justice, a 7-year-old girl, of using dark magic.
Sorcery killings have been occurring in Papua New Guinea for centuries. For a period of time, their law even legalized the killings. In 1971, the Papua New Guinea government passed the Sorcery Act. This law made sorcery an illegal and criminalized act. It also made sorcery a legal defense when it came to murder trials. The act affirmed that magic is a real, plausible belief in their culture, which can be punishable by death.
Between 1980 and 2012, sorcery killings resulted in only 19 charges of murders or willful murders. Then in 2013, the Sorcery Act was repealed (the part about sorcery as an acceptable murder defense). Witchcraft practitioners were (and are) still imposed with the death penalty — although, there have been no executions since 1954.
Additionally in 2013, the government passed a Family Protection Act. The new act criminalized domestic violence and allowed women to acquire protection orders. But according to Human Rights Watch, the implementation of the law is weak.
Despite the new legal repercussions, death rates have continued to increase. Locals believe up to 50,000 people have been accused over the years, and there are 200 sorcery killings annually.
Sorcery killings in Papua New Guinea continue today is because of the lack of punishment and law enforcement. Many public events have occurred when it comes to sorcery killings, many of which fly under the media’s radar.
In a 2016 case, four women were accused of stealing a man’s heart. After condemning the women for witchcraft, villagers attacked the women and forced them to return his heart. The man made a full recovery with his “returned” heart. While the man lived, a video surfaced of the burning, torture and death of all four women. Justice, the 7-year-old girl who gained global attention, was accused of the same act. Likewise, her village captured and tortured her for five days.
Papua New Guinea’s government has been upholding their decision to hold individuals accountable for sorcery killings. In 2017, The National Council agreed that eight men were to receive the death penalty for a sorcery-related killing. Further, the government raised $2.9 million for “sorcery awareness and education programs.”
There are even foundations, such as the PNG Tribal Foundation, dedicated to helping Papua New Guinea. The organizations fight to change the country’s societal views on women, engage in new health care programs, open women’s forums and help at-risk youth. The PNG Tribal Foundation actually helped create a plan to save 7-year-old Justice from her village.
Hopefully, change is on the rise when it comes to sorcery killings in Papua New Guinea and the associated gender-based violence. Papua New Guinea can begin to turn things around if they put into place more properly enforced laws.
– Jessica LaVopa