Despite repeated efforts from government bodies and N.G.O.s, sorcery-related crime, referred to officially as Sorcery Accusation Related Violence (S.A.R.V.), continues to run rampant in Papua New Guinea. Hundreds of people in the South Asian nation, mostly women, are subjected to extreme violence every year due to claims that they are engaging in witchcraft. The problem has seen a worrying increase in recent years despite several efforts to combat it.
Sorcery, or sanguma, is embedded in Papua New Guinea’s rich and unique culture, which developed in relative isolation from the rest of the world. But conservation of culture should not come at the cost of people’s lives. The U.N. estimates that just under 400 people are murdered annually due to claims that they have engaged in witchcraft, though this figure is potentially much higher as fears of retaliation prevent many incidents from being reported. S.A.R.V. is brutal, often involving beatings, burnings, and machete attacks. Vulnerable women, mostly widows, single mothers, and the mentally ill, are those most often targeted, evidencing the misogyny which is inseparable from these crimes.
Social media has shone a brightening spotlight on S.A.R.V., allowing incidents in even remote regions to gain international attention. One of the latest high-profile incidents occurred in the remote Enga province: after the unexplained death of a local man, nine women from his tribe were tortured, five of whom would die from the experience. One of these women was pregnant. Other incidents, such as one in the village of Karida, saw mass killings of women and children incite hundreds to flee their homes.
But increased visibility due to social media doesn’t fully explain the rising incident toll. People are moving en masse from their native villages in search of work, disrupting the usual measures which have kept sanguma violence relatively in check – namely, village chiefs and tribal justice systems. As the population of Papua New Guinea shifts and changes, vulnerable people have become scapegoats for issues beyond their control.
Over 80% of the country’s roughly 9 million citizens live in rural areas with poor access to healthcare and education, which contributes heavily to the problem of S.A.R.V. When tragedies like unexplained deaths or illnesses occur, people look for answers, and without what we might call a basic education, sanguma seems the most reasonable explanation. “Sorcery-related violence stems from poor education, lack of awareness, limited opportunities coupled with deteriorating capacity for law and order and a lack of political will,” Gari Juffa, governor of Papua New Guinea’s Oro province, told the Guardian.
Many different actors have attempted to curb the violence. The Papua New Guinean government introduced the Sorcery National Action Plan in 2015, aiming to combat the issue through counselling, awareness, and protection, but inconsistent funding and a lack of solid targets ensured that it achieved little. The government also repealed the 1971 Sorcery Act, which allowed accused murderers to use sorcery as a defence in court and which tightened legislation concerning S.A.R.V. However, a study by the Australian National University found in 2017 that, in spite of the improved legislation, a mere 91 out of 15,000 perpetrators had been tried and imprisoned for their atrocities. Organizations like the Tribal Foundation, meanwhile, seek to limit harm in the wake of a sanguma accusation by rescuing and rehabilitating victims, but this approach is unsustainable, especially with the recent spike in S.A.R.V. incidents.
S.A.R.V. is embedded deep in Papua New Guinea’s social conscience. Eradicating the problem will require major societal upheaval. Rural education regarding alternate explanations for sanguma and conviction rates for S.A.R.V. perpetrators must improve immediately, and the government must fully commit to funding projects to prevent further atrocities. No one should be put to death or tortured as a price for problems they had no hand in. S.A.R.V. is a barbaric practice which ought to be consigned to history.
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