Global 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. Continue reading