Accusations of witchcraft in Africa have gained increasing attention because of the severe impact they can have on the lives of those accused, including imprisonment, deprivation of property, banishment from villages and in some cases physical violence.
The human-rights law program I direct recently partnered with an N.G.O. in Malawi to run a mobile legal-aid clinic focusing on witchcraft cases in two rural communities.
Men, women and children flocked to our clinic seeking legal assistance. The cases were challenging and engaged the question of how to confront accusations of witchcraft, particularly when children and elderly women disproportionately bear the brunt of such accusations.
The persecution of accused witches has not historically been confined to Africa. Witch-hunts have occurred in Europe, America, ancient Rome, Aztec Mexico, Russia, China and India. But the practice persists in poor settings in part because witchcraft can be used in communities without routine access to modern medicine and science to explain seemingly inexplicable instances of death and misfortune.
In Malawi, a country of deep poverty and low life-expectancy, one of our clients claimed that disgruntled community members in years past had cursed his village by proclaiming that the rains would disappear. When the rains did not arrive as anticipated, his conclusion was, “How could that be the result of anything but witchcraft?”
In such cases, we tried to explain what we believed were the real causes of misfortunes. Malawi has suffered a series of droughts, so in this case we discussed climate science to explain the lack of rains.
Economically oppressed people who lack political outlets to express their grievances may also turn to leveling accusations of witchcraft. Conflict, internal displacement, the lack of development, and the weight of HIV/AIDS on families have all contributed to the rise of witchcraft accusations in Africa.
Exacerbating the problem are mushrooming religious sects that offer bogus exorcism services, as well as local witch doctors who claim to “hunt” witches and charge exorbitant fees for potions to lift “spells.”
One client arrived at our legal-aid clinic desperate to cure her daughter of a perceived spell. She confided that she had spent huge sums of money and bartered goods on a series of witch doctors, all to no avail. We encouraged her to stop using her hard-earned savings on witch doctors, and she quickly realized that most of them were charlatans.
Although men are sometimes targeted, elderly women and children are often the primary victims of witchcraft accusations. Elderly women are at risk because their removal can expedite accusers’ access to their property. We heard a case in which a man had severely beat our client’s elderly mother and accused her of witchcraft in an attempt to gain access to her land.
Children are also easy targets. In one case we heard, someone accused a 12-year-old girl of being a witch and threatened to bury the child. Although this is not the case in Malawi, in countries like Angola, Nigeria and Congo, “witch children” are often abused and abandoned by their families.
Many clients came to our mobile legal clinic eager to learn the status of Malawi’s law on witchcraft. According to the law, currently under review by Malawi’s law reform commission, it is illegal to accuse someone of witchcraft or to hire a witch doctor to identify an alleged witch.
Some clients were resistant to the notion of providing a measure of protection to accused witches, but others were relieved. A female village chief, previously unaware of the law, had been holding town-hall meetings for years to encourage community members to stop witchcraft accusations. After attending our clinic, she was happy to learn that the law supports her stance.
We had many other cases in which individuals sought legal advice on whether they could proceed with accusing someone of witchcraft. We welcomed these cases because they gave us an opportunity to intervene before the belief in witchcraft was transformed into public blame and potential violence.
One young woman with chronically bad luck in love believed that her failed romantic relationships were the result of spells cast by her uncle. After we informed her that it is against Malawian law to accuse her uncle of witchcraft she vowed not to do so. We also dissuaded another woman from branding a local child in the community as a witch. She left the clinic determined to deter other potential accusers.
Many Malawians believe in witchcraft. This belief, in and of itself, is not the issue. It is the transformation of belief into accusation and subsequent harm that is at issue. So although the law does not address the question of whether witchcraft exists or not — individuals are free to believe or disbelieve — it should continue to criminalize witchcraft accusations.
Legislation alone will not stop attacks against alleged witches. Malawi and other African countries grappling with this issue should raise public awareness through nationwide campaigns that enlist church groups, police, the justice system, N.G.O.s and traditional healers to encourage people to refrain from making accusations of witchcraft against neighbors and relatives, especially emphasizing the often irreparable harm these do to children and elderly women.
By Chi Mgbako, clinical associate professor of law and director of the Walter Leitner International Human Rights Clinic at Fordham Law School in New York City.