Summary of main themes emerging from the conference on Sorcery & Witchcraft-Related Killings in Melanesia, 5-7 June 2013, ANU, Canberra

sorcery_collage_2This three day multi-disciplinary conference focused on the negative social consequences of belief in sorcery and witchcraft in Melanesia (the conference booklet with program, abstracts and speakers is available here).  Approximately half the speakers were from PNG, Vanuatu and Solomon Islands and the other half were from Australia, New Zealand, Europe and North America.  Below is a summary of some of the main themes to emerge from the discussions, in no particular order.


The modern nature of witchcraft and sorcery related beliefs and practices

Many speakers commented on the fact that the actions following witchcraft and sorcery accusations, and indeed the underlying expressions of beliefs today, vary markedly from the pre-colonial times.  The very public nature of many witchcraft related attacks today, and the associated prolonged sexualized torture of the victim were said to differ markedly from traditional practices when victims were dispatched of secretly, often by kin.  It was also noted that witchcraft and sorcery related beliefs are being transported around PNG to places where they never previously existed.  One participant commented that people are reacting to new social ideas in terms of old belief systems, and so for example are talking about witches using choppers and mobile phones.  Other speakers observed that in the past people referred to stones as being used to “poison” people and now it is chemicals that are said to be being used.  Sorcery practices are also now being commodified and increasingly able to be “bought” at local markets as new modes of accessing power, meaning that a far greater range of people have access to them than previously.  The variety of forms of sorcery and witchcraft seem to be increasing, and hybridizing, rather than dying out.

Pervasiveness of the beliefs

It was clear that belief in sorcery and witchcraft is entrenched in PNG, Vanuatu and Solomon Islands.  These beliefs are the default explanation for any unusual occurrence, sickness, death and misfortune.  One speaker referred to an “anthropology of fear” to articulate how a fear of sorcery permeates people’s world-view.

Perpetrators of violence against accused witches and sorcerers

In many cases it is “useless,” disenfranchised, young men who are carrying out the physical attacks on alleged witches and sorcerers, although the accusations may have been first made by women or older men.  Such men are associated with drugs, alcohol, small arms, frustration, and an inability to find a meaningful role for themselves in their communities.  Conversely, they see themselves as local heroes in this role.  Many speakers suggested that strategies targeted towards working with such men, and confronting the troubled forms of post-colonial masculinity, are therefore necessary in dealing with sorcery and witchcraft practices today.

The gendered nature of sorcery and witchcraft

This was a subject on which many viewpoints were expressed.  It was clear that the so-called users of sorcery and witchcraft, and also the victims of sorcery and witchcraft related attacks, can be either men or women. Gender is largely dependent upon the cultural understandings and beliefs of the particular community in which the actions/ beliefs are located.  In many places though, where women are the targets of sorcery and witchcraft fuelled violence, they are particularly vulnerable and at risk due to unequal power relations and lack of support structures/ access to land or income.  One speaker commented that a common underlying theme in the victims of these attacks was that they are either “strangers on the inside” such as women who have married-in, or else “insiders who have become strangers” such as community members who live predominantly away from their communities in urban settings, returning home sporadically.

Sorcery and witchcraft beliefs becoming more problematic as a result of social changes and breakdowns in traditional authorities

Many speakers referred to the disintegration of traditional authority structures, in particular control over young men by community leaders, as being a particular problem.  Even if there is a desire to stop sorcery and witchcraft accusations getting out of control, there is limited power to do so at a local level.  Also the new forms of wealth and trends towards individualism and materialism are leading to economic disparities and provoking jealousy and envy which also feeds witchcraft and sorcery related suspicions and accusations.  This is associated with the growth of settlements, people living in larger communities and with people traditionally considered as “outsiders” moving into communities.

The role of churches

There were a number of views expressed about whether or not the churches were perpetrating the violence or whether they are helping.  Many speakers stressed that Pentecostal churches with their emphasis on Satan and their campaigns of “spiritual warfare” were fomenting beliefs in witchcraft and sorcery.  Some observed that there is a need to control the proliferation of such churches.  However, positive examples were also given of strategies developed and adopted by the more established churches to control sorcery and witchcraft accusations.  Father Gibbs presented a “5 point strategy” that has had a restraining effect on sorcery related violence.  There was considerable discussion of the sometimes contradictory roles played by the Melanesian Brotherhood in Vanuatu and Solomon Islands in relation to these issues.

The role of the media/ academics

Some questions were asked about the role of the media in encouraging “copycat” sorcery and witchcraft related violence in PNG, and associated questions were asked about the reporting of the findings of this conference.  Responses to these concerns stressed that news about sorcery and witchcraft related attacks was being transmitted through informal networks (particularly the use of mobile phones) as much as, or more than, through the formal media; that the more informed the debate can be the better; that the power of the media can be harnessed in positive ways such as through the recent enormously successful Haus Krai movement; and that standing by and watching the most vulnerable members of community be attacked and victimized is not a palatable alternative.  The comment was also made that a major problem is that the message of impunity in relation to these attacks as a result of police unwillingness or incapacity to act has already gotten out loud and clear.

Sorcery and violence

Many speakers drew attention to the different forms of sorcery related violence.  The recent attacks on women accused of witchcraft in PNG was shown to be just one particular manifestation, although the concentration of the media on this was suggesting to outsiders that it is the only type.  For example, sorcery was also shown to be a trigger for inter-community tribal warfare in the highlands, and also disputes between different clans in Bougainville.  Some speakers also discussed the fact that most accusations of sorcery and witchcraft do not end up in violence, and there is a need to further study what are the restraining factors.

Differences in sorcery and witchcraft related beliefs across Melanesia

Many speakers drew attention to the incredible diversity of witchcraft and sorcery related beliefs across Melanesia and stressed that understanding the particular cultural context was fundamental to an understanding of the problems.  The issue of the extent to which valid generalizations can be made in the context of sorcery and witchcraft related beliefs and practices was also debated, with many stressing the extent to which accusations and counter-accusations are embedded in particular local political landscapes.  The problem of terminology was also discussed, with all agreeing that sorcery and witchcraft are problematic terms that carry a lot of implied western understandings that are not appropriate in a Melanesian context.  However, it was not clear what an appropriate alternative term may be.

Multi-faced nature of divine power

It was commonly noted that divine power has many faces in Melanesia, and commonly those who are thought to have the power to harm also have the power to heal.  Although the focus of the conference was on the negative social effects of these beliefs, participants also stressed positive aspects of the beliefs such as gardening and healing magic.  Some speakers suggested that the polarizing of sorcery into good and evil is a product of Christianization with its emphasis on evil and Satan, and previously spirits were neither good nor bad, just powerful.

Who is “the victim” of sorcery and witchcraft?

There was considerable slippage in many presentations and discussions concerning the “victims” of these beliefs.  Many speakers referred to those who had been killed or hurt by sorcery/ witchcraft as the victims, while others focused on those who had been accused of witchcraft/sorcery as being the victims.  In terms of state responses, the primary focus was on how to better protect those who have been victims of sorcery/ witchcraft accusations.  The question of how to protect the other types of victims was largely left unaddressed.

The role of the state criminal justice system

There were many references to the problem of impunity in relation to sorcery and witchcraft related violence.  The PNG state was seen as being reluctant to become involved in dealing with these issues and using lack of capacity as an excuse rather than as a real reason.  One speaker said that police are present in their uniforms, but they are still part of the community and so are reluctant to intervene.  The Human Rights defenders said that in the 36 cases they have been involved with, only one led to a successful prosecution and that was because the victim in question had money to pursue the issue.  It was also said that although populations see witchcraft and sorcery as being real problems and sources of fear and insecurity, governments are reluctant to intervene and this leads to people taking the law into their own hands.  All three Law Reform Commissions in the region are currently investigating these issues, and although they are in agreement that the current legal frameworks are not working, there is not as yet a clear vision of how they should best be replaced.  There was an interesting tension between people putting responsibility on the state and blaming it for not being present and better prepared to deal with these problems, while at the same time acknowledging that local institutions may be better equipped to deal with the issues.  The problems of access to state justice institutions in PNG, especially by women, were also stressed by a number of speakers.  Finally there was general agreement that the death penalty is unlikely to be an effective response to sorcery and witchcraft related killings.

Sorcery as impeding economic development/ jealousy

A number of speakers linked fear of sorcery with jealousy and envy, leading to an unwillingness of Melanesians to work towards advancing their own living standards.  Setting up businesses and becoming successful (especially if wealth is shown outwardly, such as in building new houses) is widely seen as being risky and as inviting a premature death through a sorcery attack.  These fears are to an extent supported by the sudden deaths of apparently successful (and hence often overweight, stressed etc) middle aged men and women due to heart attacks and other non-communicable diseases (hypertension, diabetes etc).  It was generally agreed that these concerns have to date been largely invisible in development discourse.

Solutions/ Ways forward

Overall it was noted that any solution has to be holistic, multi-pronged and pay close attention to local conditions.  Dealing comprehensively with the issues relating to sorcery and witchcraft beliefs will require working across multiple government departments, including in particular health, education and justice, in addition to working with a range of non-state institutions and organisations.  Below are a few of the specific recommendations that were made:

  • Long term awareness-raising and education about alternative causes of explanation for sickness, death and misfortune is required, as well as awareness about the legal frameworks in place and human rights.
  • A number of speakers stressed the need for local institutions to deal with these problems using home-grown approaches and community leaders.  There was also recognition of the need for strengthening these institutions, and also the risk that in some instances customary authorities can be part of the problems.  One example was given of a community policing project in Gor that has virtually eliminated sorcery-related violence, and may be a model for other communities to follow.
  • A range of non-violent means of resolving witchcraft and sorcery related conflicts were outlined, and included mediation (at a family level or more widely), public confession and rehabilitation, banishment, and compensation payments.  Some argued that such means should be used in place of violence, although others argued that many of these are themselves problematic.
  • Father Gibbs outlined a 5 point strategy involving early and structured intervention around deaths and funerals.  This included the provision of a bio-medical explanation of the death, a strong family member prepared to take ownership of the situation and discount sorcery accusations, the promotion of respect for law and order and the immediate supportive presence of the church.
  • Supporting human rights defenders who are documenting the cases of survivors and helping them in various ways (provision of medical support, relocation etc), as well as working towards getting community leaders in the highlands to sign a peace treaty
  • It was noted that not all members of communities agree with the violence against alleged sorcerers and witches, and these people need to be helped to find agency to express their alternative points of view.
  • Supporting women’s groups and advocates who are thinking critically about what is happening and developing new forms of agency to challenge the violent consequences of these beliefs, such as the Haus Krai movement.
  • Laws were seen as being necessary, although the content of these was not agreed upon.  Strengthening state institutions such as the police and courts to ensure the laws can be implemented and enforced is also crucial.

Finally, it was noted that sorcery and witchcraft related violence is now on the radar of national governments and international human rights bodies, and this should be used as a springboard to push forward with necessary reforms.

Podcasts of selected papers will be available soon on SSGMs podcast site.

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4 Responses to Summary of main themes emerging from the conference on Sorcery & Witchcraft-Related Killings in Melanesia, 5-7 June 2013, ANU, Canberra

  1. John Burton says:

    When we came to the conference wrap-up, I said I was puzzled how few speakers had raised the issue of collapsed health services in PNG. Our presentation was 100% about the appalling levels of mortality in a rural LLG and we said it was hardly surprising people fell back on explanations of the causes of sickness and death centring on sorcery and witchcraft.

    I am now more than puzzled that this observation (backed at the time by at least two other commentators) has not made it into the SSGM summary beyond ‘dealing … with the issues … will require working across multiple government departments, including in particular health, education and justice, in addition to working with a range of non-state institutions and organisations’. Yes, it may need a multi-departmental approach but not one based on ‘consultation’. The cost of restoring rural health infrastructure increases with every year of delay. A$1bn is needed right now just to stand still, I shouldn’t wonder.

    No deaths, no reason to accuse witches.

  2. Dan Jorgensen says:

    Thanks to you both for an excellent summary that captures the range and fullness of the discussion. A very useful platform for future efforts.

  3. Kate says:

    A great summary – thanks SSGM. I also think that due to the sexual and gender based nature not only of the beliefs but the type of violence used in attacks, strengthening sexual and reproductive rights will be a key factor in change. It is also worth noting the statement by OHCHR [ed: Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights] “Where culture becomes dysfunctional and leads to human rights violations, there is an obligation to change culture.” I wish we had more time to discuss this in terms of strategies!

  4. Anne Lanham says:

    Many thanks for the summary which effectively captured the essence of the a conference presenting such a diverse and well-informed collection of speakers. Perhaps a follow up conference in 5 years?

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