Human rights groups are urging Papua New Guinea to step up protections of women accused of sorcery after one woman was hacked to death in a remote village last week. The grisly attack is the latest case in a spate of witchcraft-related killings in the country that authorities are slowly trying to curb.
A woman known as Misila was reportedly “axed” to death last week by a number of attackers after being accused of sorcery. The attack came months after Misila and two other women were saved from being executed in a remote village. The women were accused of magical involvement in an outbreak of measles cases in January that left several villagers dead. Authorities managed to intervene before the women could be killed.
Misila’s murder has prompted human rights organizations like Amnesty International to urge the government to make more of an effort to offer protection to other women accused of sorcery. “The vicious killing of Misila highlights the Papua New Guinean government’s persistent failure to address the wave of attacks against those, mainly women, accused of ‘sorcery,’ ” said Kate Schuetze, Amnesty International’s Pacific Researcher in a statement Tuesday. “The government must act immediately to ensure that the perpetrators of such attacks are brought to justice.”
Tackling deeply embedded cultural beliefs around witchcraft and sorcery has proven to be a challenge for the country’s lawmakers, who have begun to slowly legislate on the issue after a wave of particularly gruesome attacks attracted international attention. In early 2013, a young mother named Kepari Leniata was stripped naked and burned alive in Papua New Guinea’s third-largest city after being accused of using witchcraft to kill a boy. A few months later, a schoolteacher was tortured and publicly beheaded, also after being accused of using witchcraft to kill another villager.
The violence sparked outrage from rights campaigners and condemnation by the United Nations. In response, the government repealed a 1971 law that allowed attackers to use their belief in their victim’s use of sorcery as a legal defense in trials. Other reforms have included treating any sorcery-related killings as a murder punishable by death.
But even with these preliminary legislative efforts, there remains the issue of implementation, particularly in the remote areas where law enforcement and government authorities have limited access. "Implementation is the big obstacle," said Nancy Robinson, of the U.N.’s Human Rights Commission, in comments to the Australian Broadcasting Company. "You may have a law, but then if you don't have the police capacity to enforce it or if the police themselves view the situation of sorcery-related killings with indifference, then we still have a big issue of how to address impunity. Those who perpetrate this violence know full well they'll get off scot free -- this has to change."