MIRANDA FORSYTH & FIONA HUKULA | DevPolicy Blog
PORT MOREBY - Sorcery accusation-related violence is a highly topical and sensitive subject in Papua New Guinea at present, with a range of leaders publicly condemning the practice.
The government approved the Sorcery National Action Plan in 2015, and in 2017 allocated significant financial support to the Department for Community Development for awareness programs to counter this type of violence.
The harmful practices associated with beliefs in sorcery and witchcraft - including accusations and related violence - are also increasingly being recognised as major human rights violations by a range of United Nations agencies.
Whilst there is a general consensus that awareness and training are important in addressing these issues, both nationally and globally we are just at the start of the process of developing an evidence-based approach to such programs.
From five years of working in this area in PNG, and most recently as participant observers in a two-day training program run for police from three Highlands provinces, we would like to share some lessons with others working in this field, to grow the evidence base in a collaborative way.
In particular, we address four challenges: differentiating concerns about sorcery from those about sorcery accusation related violence (SARV); managing participants with different cultural traditions of witchcraft and sorcery; clarifying the legal position in regard to SARV; and ensuring relevance of training after the participant has completed the workshop.
As a general introductory remark, it is important to be specific about the objectives and scope of any training or workshop in this area.
There is a large range of potential objectives: basic knowledge transfer about state law and procedures; referral pathways; and more conceptual aims that seek to encourage reflection on topics, such as the nature of evidence and proof, causes of sickness and death, personal assumption of responsibility for personal and professional shortcomings and ways of responding to shame and jealousy (all of which are implicated in sorcery accusations).
A fundamental difficulty in training and awareness programs about sorcery accusations and related violence is that many of the participants view the problem of sorcery as being a more significant problem, or just as significant a problem, facing society as SARV.
This viewpoint is frequently highlighted in letters to the editor and articles in the local newspaper, and was aptly summarised in the opening to the recent police workshop by a government official who stated, “We cannot deny that sorcery and witchcraft is there... You and me we cannot see it but we know that something is happening.
“The people who are taking violence into their own hands because of sorcery and witchcraft, we cannot deny that they are wrong, but you know they are frustrated.”
Our experience suggests that concerns about sorcery need to be acknowledged and taken seriously in any awareness and training, rather than being swept aside.
As participants in training and awareness programs regularly observe, the vast majority of Papua New Guineans believe in sorcery. At the same time, it is critical that the focus is not shifted from SARV, or that any of the messages about SARV are undermined by acknowledging concerns about sorcery.
There are a range of strategies that can be used to meet this challenge. First, it is important to be clear about terminology – the term “sorcery accusation-related violence” can ensure precision about exactly what is being addressed. Secondly, it can be helpful to set out some examples of SARV and the impact it can have on individuals, families and communities.
First-hand experiences by survivors can be very powerful in raising awareness of the scope of the issue, and there are increasing numbers of audio-visual resources available.
Focusing on the suffering of those falsely accused of sorcery, and their families, can be a useful way to cut through attempts to justify these practices on the basis of culture or tradition.
If questions of how one differentiates a false accusation from a justified one arise, this can be an opportunity to discuss different types of evidence and the credibility that different types of evidence have.
It can also be helpful to give examples of cases where accusations of sorcery are motivated by ulterior motives such as wanting access to the accused person’s land.
Third, a discussion about worldviews can also be of assistance, drawing out how people tend to think differently about the issues when approaching them from a scientific position or a Christian position or a cultural position or even a legal position.
Getting people to reflect on the ways in which they themselves navigate between these different worldviews can assist in separating anxieties about sorcery from the issues surrounding SARV.
Fourth, it can be helpful to distinguish between people’s beliefs per se, and the way in which people respond to those beliefs. In other words, a useful message is that whilst people are free to believe in the power of sorcery, this does not entitle them to engage in violence or defamation against a particular individual. It may be useful in a workshop to have a session where participants discuss how concerns about sorcery are able to be dealt with in nonviolent and non-stigmatising ways, such as through facilitated dialogue, prayer, and/or accessing good explanations about sickness and death, which are often key triggers for sorcery accusations. Of course this is not to say that any of these strategies are always effective, alone or combined.
Finally, if the training or awareness is with state officials or leaders, such as village court magistrates or police, it can be useful to reflect on the participants’ roles as duty bearers, and the importance of separating beliefs from professional responsibilities.
It is critical that facilitators themselves model the use of correct terminology and resist the temptation to recount stories or anecdotes that turn the attention away from SARV and to sorcery itself, or to allow participants to do so. This is more challenging than it sounds and will need deliberate attention in program development.
Working with participants with a wide variety of cultural understandings about sorcery or witchcraft Participants at workshops in an environment like PNG are likely to have diverse cultural understandings about sorcery or witchcraft. This may make group work difficult as participants struggle to understand each other's worldviews and particular local traditions.
This problem is not assisted by terms such as sorcery and witchcraft that are used to cover a wide variety of very disparate practices. One way forward is to acknowledge the differences in sorcery and witchcraft traditions throughout PNG at the start of the program, and provide a few examples.
Then, participants may be encouraged to focus on how the beliefs are manifested in the particular location of their work rather than their place of origin, particularly those that lead to the most violent behaviour.
A related point is the importance of acknowledging the value and legitimacy of the participants’ local knowledge and experience of subjects covered in the workshop.
Participants are likely to be important sources of information about practical strategies for dealing with a range of scenarios related to SARV, from which the group and subsequent groups will benefit. At the same time, it may be necessary to respectfully correct sincerely held but incorrect interpretations of state legislation and regulations.
Clarifying the legal position in regard to sorcery accusations and related violence It is clear from our research that there is widespread confusion about the legal situation with regard to SARV. The implications of the repeal of the Sorcery Act 1971 appear not to be well-understood. There is a great need for simple explanations about the following in particular:
- Whether or not a person pretending to practice sorcery is committing a crime (although the offence of practicing or pretending to practice sorcery is no longer justiciable in the higher courts, the Village Courts still have jurisdiction over such matters).
- The range of crimes or offences committed by accusing someone of sorcery, and of assaulting them or causing property damage (including the crimes committed by people who participate in some way in the perpetration of violence). The key message is that assault, arson and murder are crimes regardless of whether they are committed against someone accused of sorcery or not.
- The fact that there is no defence for committing a crime on the basis that it was motivated by a belief that the victim was practicing sorcery.
- The likely penalties for such crimes, including noting that the courts consider attacking someone because they have caused harm through sorcery an aggravating factor (i.e. one to increase the sentence).
- The range of civil penalties available to people who have been accused of sorcery, including compensation for defamation of character and for property damage.
- The role of proof in criminal trials and its importance.
The final challenge addressed here is helping participants put what they have learnt into action after the workshop/training has finished. Crucially, they will be returning to workplaces and communities where the issue of responding to SARV may not be seen as important, and where there may even be complicity in SARV.
The sharp distinctions attempted to be made at the workshop/training between SARV and sorcery are also likely to become blurred quite quickly.
Two strategies may be of assistance. One is ensuring that when workshop participants are identified, consideration is given to ensuring that there are three or more participants from a particular work environment rather than just one or two, so that the kernel of a network can be created.
Second, it may help for participants to develop action plans that can be used to map out scenarios that are likely to arise once participants return home, and appropriate ways to respond to these.
It is easier to have clear ideas about response pathways, available resources, and support networks prepared ahead of time. This could be done as part of a final exercise where participants are asked to brainstorm two situations related to SARV that they are likely to find themselves in, such as being a bystander to SARV or being required to respond in an official capacity to an individual who has been accused of or is concerned about sorcery.
They should prepare responses based on an understanding of the resources available to them in their particular work environment, with a focus on appropriate referral pathways and key messages.
Finally, as with all training, it is important that it is not stand-alone but occurs on a regular basis.