In early January a girl aged 16-20 years old was burned alive in front of witnesses in Mt Hagen, Papua New Guinea (PNG). She was accused of being a witch. This most recently reported sorcery killing in Papua New Guinea (PNG) is not an isolated incident.

Before being burned alive in public the girl was reportedly stripped naked, blindfolded, gagged and tied to a pole. Reports state there were witnesses to this murder. To date, there have been no arrests or charges laid in relation to the crime.

In the remote communities and highlands provinces of Papua New Guinea, “puri puri” – the traditional belief of sorcery – is being rampantly used as a pretext for brutal acts of violence against women. More than 50 reported cases of sorcery-related deaths occurred in 2008 alone, and local authorities believe that many more instances of murder have gone unreported.

Women are 6 times more likely to be accused of sorcery than men, with Eastern Highlands provincial police commander, Teddy Tei noting that "many of the sorcery suspects killed were innocent people." Within traditional tribes, sorcery is thought to account for sudden and unexplained deaths and mysterious illness. Women suffering from HIV/AIDS are often seen as victims of sorcery and blamed for spreading the disease into their community.

PNG has the highest HIV infection rate in the South Pacific and there is an evident lack of understanding of the nature of the disease and how it is spread, and a history of inhumane methods used to divest communities of HIV/AIDS sufferers.

Authorities fear that the growing hysteria and accusations of witchcraft are a convenient disguise for premeditated murder – potentially stemming from a person’s dislike for another, rivalry or revenge, rather than a deep-rooted traditional belief. In one reported incident, a middle-aged woman was beaten to death in front of a crowd, accused of being responsible for the cancer-induced death of a young student. It was believed she cursed him after the two had a dispute over land.

The murdered women are often older, with little economic influence in the village and seen as a financial burden on their tribes. Perpetrators are usually young men whose actions are supported by other villagers and tribesmen – communities themselves can be accomplices to murder, insofar as they condone and defend these violent acts.

Those accused of witchcraft face inhumane treatment such as beating with barbed wire, broken bones, burning with red hot metal, rape, hanging over fire, cutting of body parts, amputation of limbs and pulling victims behind moving vehicles. Of the murders reported to police, victims have been buried alive, beheaded, choked to death, thrown over a cliff or into rivers or caves, starved, axed, electrocuted, suffocated with smoke, forced to drink petrol, stoned or shot. Read more on this.

Law offers little protection

Prosecuting the offenders of sorcery-related killings is difficult, with little cooperation from tight-knit village communities. Witnesses often refuse to talk to the police, believing that what happens in the village, stays in the village. This view is often shared by local police, who have been reluctant to intervene in many instances. Where an accused faces court over a sorcery-related murder, the defence of sorcery is often seen as a mitigating factor during sentencing.

Local police commanders are calling on community leaders to help discourage sorcery-related killing, but this proves difficult in an environment where community leaders themselves often condone the acts of violence. Though the police engage in awareness programs targeted at the repercussions of sorcery and the murder of innocent people, the continuance of this form of violence against women indicates that new methods need to be adopted.

The road ahead

Head of PNG's Constitutional Review and Law Reform Commission, Mr Joe Mek Teine, has announced that the issue will be given priority for lawmakers in 2009. Existing laws on sorcery will be reviewed, and stronger laws developed in consultation with church organisations, government agencies and ethnic groups. New legislation will address the past leniency in prosecutions, and force rural courts to charge those accused of sorcery-related killings with premeditated murder and face all implications.

Amnesty International calls for Papua New Guinea to introduce legislation similar in form to the Mpumalanga Witchcraft Suppression Bill of 2007, introduced (but not yet passed) in South Africa. The Act will outlaw the making of accusations of witchcraft, and the harming of individuals suspected of practicing sorcery. Dame Carol Kidu, the PNG Minister for Welfare and Social Development, believesthat a mindset and attitudinal change is also necessary. A two-fold strategy targeting legal response and social change must be developed to prevent further acts of violence.

A more effective policing effort should encourage community members who suspect others of sorcery to contact the authorities and not take the law into their own hands. Police must intervene at the point when claims of sorcery arise, and victims should be encouraged to report any attacks before the situation escalates. Concurrently, more awareness-raising is required to educate communities about the causes of HIV/AIDS, addressing the social roots behind these acts of violence against women, and openly challenge any link between women with HIV/AIDS and notions of sorcery.