Sorcery and Sexism in Papua New Guinea


One of Papua New Guinea’s most persistent problems is not its possibly overheated resource sector nor allegations of corruption. It’s witchcraft. More specifically, the vicious murders of women accused of sorcery. This is a complex problem that involves violence against women, land reclamations, and a rapidly developing nation.

“The enforcement of legislation that prohibits all forms of gender-based violence is the key to ending sorcery-related violence,” United Nations, 2013

A May 26 press release from Amnesty International called on the government to do more to protect women in the nation after a woman known as Mifila was hacked to death by a group of men in mid May. Two other women were also threatened and only just escaped. The trio, along with their children, were first accused in January.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

A longtime Papua New Guinea resident and land rights activist, Lutheran missionary Anton Lutz, had been documenting the attacks and told the Australian Associated Press (AAP), “They believed she was a Sanguma (sorcerer), that she was responsible for deaths and misfortune in their world.” A witness apparently heard one killer say, “I’m sorry sister, I guess this is your day to die.”

Mifila’s death is not uncommon. Attacks, largely targeting unprotected women, based on sorcery allegations have been an increasing problem in Papua New Guinea, though belief in witchcraft and punishments for it is, says a UN paper from 2013, “culturally embedded.”

Papua New Guinea’s 7.3 million people speak more than 850 languages and culture and customs vary greatly. Eighty percent still live in rural areas that can be very remote. This makes access to justice, outside of traditional courts, difficult. It also makes policing such crimes hard, even when the will from authorities is there.

As the country has modernized, however piecemeal, these attacks have increased, as has their barbarity, according to most who study this. The government has taken some steps to combat the trend, the main one being the repeal of the 1971 Sorcery Act in 2013.

A History of Attacks

Sorcery made international headlines in 2013 when footage of  20-year-old Kepari Lanieta being burned alive atop a pile of tires went viral. The horror and disgust within PNG was fierce. Alexander Rheeny, editor of the Post-Courier wrote, “We believe that justice is dispensed in a legally constituted court of law and not a kangaroo court chaired by individuals misled by superstition and trickery.” He despaired that so many of these “self-styled witch-killers” also got off with light sentences, assuming they were prosecuted at all. A Facebook page remembering Lanieta has 14,000 members and still regularly posts links about violence against women. Papua New Guinea has a notably active social media scene and cell phone usage is growing, making the documentation of such atrocities easier.

Less than two months after that burning, the leader of the South Bougainville Women’s Federation, Helen Rumbali was tortured then beheaded. Though both incidents are horrific, they are sadly common. The UN has estimated that attacks occur “on a weekly basis.” PNG itself believes that 150 people are killed each year in just one of its 20 provinces as a result of sorcery accusations.

A 2013 long-form story by journalist Jo Chandler for the now-defunct Global Mail noted that the attacks had become far more barbaric. Whereas once someone may have been pushed from a cliff she now might be tortured with hot iron bars to her genitals before being burned, sometimes slowly. Chandler also noted that sources said some groups with little historical belief in witchcraft were now conducting attacks, which were often run by unemployed young men. Unemployment in PNG is high and the resources boom has had far reaching effects on traditional cultures and community.

“It is reprehensible that women, the old, and the weak in our society, should be targeted for alleged sorcery or wrongs that they actually have nothing to do with,” Prime Minister Peter O’Neill has said.

Political Will?

All local and international organizations working on this or wider issues of gender or violence welcomed the repeal of 1971 Sorcery Act which, they said, legitimized attacks upon those suspected of sorcery. The Act sought also to bring such attacks into the legal arena whilst crediting the importance of customary law and traditional beliefs, but legislation and enforcement remained weak.

A 2013 paper on the subject by the UN says that sorcery-related attacks are not actually covered by international law per se but it could come under its varied sections, from CEDAW to provisions against torture or access to justice. What is important, it notes, is that though the State cannot be held responsible for the actions of individuals it can be for its failure “to prevent, investigate, prosecute or compensate for the commission of the act.” PNG, the consensus goes, must do more. “Papua New Guinea’s authorities must once and for all bring a halt to attacks against alleged ‘sorcerers’ and systemic violence against women.,” said Amnesty’s Kate Schuetze in last week’s press release.

Helen Haro from the country Gender Justice Program Manager for Oxfam told The Diplomat that the PNG had shown initiative and commitment, not just in getting rid of the sorcery act but also in drafting the Sorcery Action Plan and more broadly establishing Family Sexual Violence Units and Family Support Centres. “These reforms have, however, been driven by non-government organizations – the government must show its commitment with resource allocation and enforcement.”

Gender and Justice

“It has been observed that it is impossible to even credibly speculate whether gender violence has increased or decreased,” Jo Chandler wrote in a Lowy Institute paper in 2014.

More broadly, this is about impunity when it comes to violence against women. It is women without male relatives, such as brothers or sons, or widows who have married into their husband’s village to be left stranded after his death who are often the targets. Often it is elderly women.

The UN’s Special Rapporteur on gender has said, “Women are the first to be blamed and targeted when there is an unexplained death or misfortune in a family or village” and thus lived in constant fear of being accused of sorcery.

But although women are disproportionately affected the drivers are not simply misogyny but rather money. Much like the terror of the Spanish Inquisition, “witches” are targeted in property disputes, according to Haro.

“Our work in the highlands with the Human Rights Defenders Network revealed that while in some cases accusations of sorcery are passed from family to family for generations and driven by strong beliefs, other claims are fabricated for financial gain. Recent research by Oxfam found that in 2 in every 3 accusations resulting in a relocation, sorcery accusations were used as a means of repossessing wealth or resources such as land, houses, or businesses of the person accused.”

Access to justice is complicated by the remoteness of many areas and village courts or forms of customary law often deal, or don’t, with problems. PNG may be on the way to improving legislation but this has not necessarily trickled down to those parts of the country where it is needed. One good piece of legislation might be the COMMIT Campaign, endorsed by the Minister of Police in 2013, to end violence against women. It has yet to be enacted at grassroots level, it seems. Interest in issues such as domestic violence is not new: This report by the Constitutional and Law Reform Commission of Papua New Guinea is from 1992.

International organizations and civil society are working to engage men and boys, as well local village heads and chiefs. Australia, the country’s largest aid donor, has invested in various areas, from work in legal systems to gender and family-specific areas. Gender rights has been a specific area of focus. Right now, victims are most often saved when leaders, such as police or church leaders, intervene.

That 1992 report notes six underlying principles to combating domestic violence. Number two states: Violence is learned behavior, which can be unlearned. Which means that violence sparked by allegations of sorcery can be unlearned, also.

Helen Clark was based in Hanoi for six years as a reporter and magazine editor. She has written for two dozen publications including The Diplomat (as Bridget O’Flaherty), TimeThe Economist, the Asia Times Online and the Australian Associated Press

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief