Repealing the 1971 Sorcery Act: A Solution to Papua New Guinea’s Witch Hunts?

DSC00647_2Global news outlets are reporting that yet another woman has been murdered by an angry mob for the “crime” of sorcery in the South Pacific island nation of Papua New Guinea. Helen Rumbali — described in the media as “a women’s rights advocate and former schoolteacher” — was reportedly tortured for three days and then beheaded by villagers while police, outnumbered and unarmed, helplessly watched on. The fate of her sister and teenage nieces, who were likewise branded witches and then carried off into the jungle by the crowd, is still unknown.

According to the New York Times, PNG “has come under increased international pressure to end what appears to be a growing trend of vigilante violence against people accused of sorcery.” Those of us who have worked in this beautiful, if troubled, country know the truth: the deaths of Rumbali and others like her are heartbreaking, but not surprising, in a land where tribal practices and even outright wars remain common and women are often second class citizens. If anything, witchcraft killings have decreased, even as reports of them have risen. But they may still number in the hundreds each year.

With the world’s attention now focused on what is literally a life or death issue in PNG, it is hoped that Rumbali will be the last victim. Amnesty International has escalated its campaign urging PNG to repeal the 1971 Sorcery Act, colonial-era legislation still on the books that seeks “to prevent and punish evil practices of sorcery and other similar evil practices.” The media promptly latched onto this cause, with headlines such as “PNG Considers Repealing Sorcery Law,” “PNG Prime Minister to Repeal Sorcery Law,”  and “PNG to Repeal Witchcraft Law.”

“Repeal the Sorcery Act!” makes for a good catchphrase, but it is not a good solution for protecting accused witches from mob violence and even murder in PNG. A full description of the legislation is beyond the scope of this post, but in short, it penalizes attempting to harm others through “evil sorcery” (the language distinguishes between the latter and its “innocent” counterparts, such as traditional healing methods, which aim to help others). Put another way, the punishable offense is not magic itself, but rather its practice with criminal intent. The typical sentence, if found guilty, is the equivalent of a misdemeanor in the United States. That said, I started working with PNG’s only law school in 2007, and have yet to hear of an actual case tried under the Sorcery Act.

I never thought I would have to write these words, but despite the claims of some activists and journalists, the Sorcery Act does not call for or condone burning witches alive (as did tragically happen this February at the hands of vigilantes). Nor does it justify any violence against believed sorcerers: they are entitled to the full protection of PNG law. In fact, a review of court decisions demonstrates that judges have greatly increased punishments for those found guilty of deadly witch hunts. These defendants are rightly tried and sentenced like other murderers (and in 2007, one such criminal who appealed to have his verdict reduced, actually had it lengthened).

This is not to defend the Sorcery Act (though might its defects be as much the fault of Australia as PNG, since the latter only achieved independence from the former four years after the law’s enactment?). But it is crucial to remember that we are not outraged because PNG charged and convicted Rumbali of being a witch under the Sorcery Act (it didn’t); we are outraged because she was tortured and decapitated by a mob as the police watched on powerless to help (all probably unaware of the act’s existence). This is a much bigger problem, and unfortunately, one that cannot be solved by overturning a single piece of legislation.

The Sorcery Act’s repeal is not the panacea for witchcraft murders in PNG that some have made it out to be. When it’s revoked — which according to news reports, will happen later this year — we cannot pat ourselves on the back for a job well done and turn a blind eye. PNG will still have one of the world’s highest crime rates — including gender-based violence — and its government will still lack the resources necessary to protect women like Rumbali, her sister, and nieces.

DSC02506Only by fundamentally strengthening the overall rule of law can PNG stop these sorcerer killings. This is not a catchy slogan, it is not easy, and it is not cheap. It will take years and decades, not days and weeks. This is because PNG, as its tourism authority rightfully admits, is “like every place you’ve never been.” Over 800 indigenous languages are spoken by its six and a half million people. Some live their whole life not knowing of their government’s existence. Many do not have access to doctors, police, or teachers. Much of the country, including the capital, cannot be reached by road. The island suffers one of the planet’s highest rates of lawlessness, infectious diseases, and unemployment and one of its lowest rates of school enrollment, literacy, and GDP per capita (see data herehere, and here). And it deserves much, much better. Tragically, it seems that Rumbali was one of the many working to fix these many problems in PNG, before she was so brutally murdered.

Let’s repeal the Sorcery Act, by all means, but the effort to help women in PNG can’t stop there. Amnesty does have a number of other valid proposals, urging the government to “protect any survivors and their families from further attacks,” “vigorously pursue investigations of all sorcery-related killings to ensure the perpetrators are brought to justice,” and “develop strategies to prevent further acts of sorcery-related killings.” But the latter, while the most important, leaves me with a major and perhaps unanswerable question: how?

Photos by Tess Davis.

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