Papua Witch Hunts Increase, Fueled By Growing Economic Divide

Papua New Guinea witch hunts have claimed the lives of a growing number of women as mobs descend on their homes and drag them away to be tortured and killed.

Instances of violence against alleged witches are an increasing problem on the island of Papua New Guinea, a tribal society with more than 800 languages and 7 million people. Experts fear that witch hunts are spreading on Papua to places where they never took place before.

They believe the nation’s growing economy is partially at fault for the witch hunts. A mining boom in the country has increased the divide between rich and poor, creating animosity that manifests in allegations of witchcraft.

“Jealousy is causing a lot of hatred,” said Helen Hakena, chairwoman of the North Bougainville Human Rights Committee. “People who are so jealous of those who are doing well in life, they resort to what our people believe in, sorcery, to kill them, to stop them continuing their own development.”

A recent attack targeted Helen Rumbali, a school teacher in her 40s who was seized along with three female relatives. Police were able to negotiate the release of the others, but Rumbali was charged with witchcraft and beheaded.

The evidence against Rumbali was flimsy. A villager had recently died of a sickness, and locals believed the victim’s grave showed marks of black magic. A swarm of flied reportedly led the villagers to Rumbali’s home.

Hakena believes the Papua witch hunt against Rumbali was really due to her economic status. The woman’s son and husband had government jobs, the family was educated, and they lived in a permanent home.

“That was definitely a case of jealousy because her family is really quite well off,” Hakena said.

Until last month, the Papua witch hunts had a legal standing. The country’s Sorcery Act, in place for 42 years until being struck down, allowed belief in magic as a legal defense against killing someone suspected of using sorcery to harm another person.

“There’s no doubt that there are really genuine beliefs there and in some circumstances that is what is motivating people: the belief that if they don’t kill this person, then this person is going to continue to bring death and misfortune and sickness on their village,” said Miranda Forsyth, a lawyer at Australian National University who has studied the issue.

Fear of witchcraft is present in other nations. In Swaziland, if a witch flies a broomstick higher than 150 meters (492 feet) in the air, she is subject to arrest and a fine of R500 000 (about $55,000 USD).

In Swaziland, illnesses are considered a curse and witch doctors pay an annual tax of $1.15.

The Papua witch hunts appear to be growing beyond isolated villages. In February, a mob in the nation’s third-largest city stripped and tortured a woman accused of witchcraft, burning her alive in front of hundreds of witnesses.