When I met him, Kukurui had given up on society. He lived in a small house, a several-hour walk from the village on his clan’s ancestral land. He had paid so many fines, had handed over so many pigs and cooking pots to his supposed victims, that he couldn’t afford the $50 to send his oldest son to school. When I asked him in Mentawai, the local language, why he was targeted so often, he blamed his tendency to explode in arguments: “I get angry, and then they think I want to hurt them.” He admitted that he got into fights, but assured me he wasn’t a witch.There are others with experiences like Kukurui’s across Indonesia—and around the globe. His persecution is just one example of what human rights experts call “harmful practices related to witchcraft beliefs.” Throughout the developing world, accusations of and attempts to perform witchcraft breed torture, banishment, and even murder. Some of the violence is horrific, but most of it, like Kukurui’s ostracism, is invisible to governments and largely undocumented.
Throughout the developing world, accusations of and attempts to perform witchcraft breed torture, banishment, and even murder.
There are near-daily reports of such abuses in the developing world. During a single week this past September, in India alone, a boy murdered his aunt after accusing her of being a witch; a man was doused with petrol and immolated after a 10-year-old girl fell sick; and 22 women pulled the teeth of six men said to be witches—and then forced them to eat feces.That week wasn’t anomalous. The week before had just as many atrocious reports: Two South African brothers whipped their father to death for allegedly magically causing their bad luck, while a south Indian man was axed to death and burned on the same pyre used to cremate the woman he was suspected of killing.
"The extreme violence that is very easy to document is just the very tip of the iceberg."
As long as governments punish violence against suspected witches, accusers are discouraged from attacking outright. But this doesn’t prevent them from denouncing suspected witches in other ways. A study published in Nature Human Behavior last year showed that entire villages in southwestern China are structured according to witchcraft beliefs. People refrain from interacting with suspected witches, leading the accused to segregate themselves and establish marginal social networks.Such silent persecution is common in places where people believe in witchcraft. In Papua New Guinea, for instance, “[People accused of being witches] carry around what they refer to as a ‘birthmark’ or ‘name tag,’” said Forsyth. “It’s burned onto their forehead for life.” As a result, “wherever they go—even the children, even a baby—will have to bear the burden of carrying this name.”Growing up in southwestern Nigeria, lawyer Ikponwosa Ero says she encountered “the evil” of witchcraft-related violence first-hand. “We weren’t allowed as children to be around when violence would break,” she said. Still, she experienced the aftermath. “I know the smells. I’ve seen the debris on the street of someone who has just been burnt alive.”Those experiences are, in part, what led Ero to become one of the leading advocates for eliminating witchcraft-related violence globally.
“I know the smells. I’ve seen the debris on the street of someone who has just been burnt alive.”
For Ero, witchcraft-related attacks on people with albinism are “part of a system.” She explained that the assumptions that provoke such violence stem from long-held cultural beliefs about magic, beliefs that also inspire violence towards women, children, and other marginal groups accused of practicing dark magic. Realizing the depth of the issue, Ero began to devise “a system-wide strategy.” She reached out to other U.N. experts, as well as the Witchcraft and Human Rights Information Network (WHRIN), a U.K.-based non-profit aimed at advocacy and education. Together, they designed what Ero calls “a human rights-based counter-attack.”
"Once the U.N. recognizes it, then governments will have to recognize it."
Perhaps most important, however, is the resolution’s symbolic impact. “Once the U.N. recognizes it, then governments will have to recognize it,” said Foxcroft. “Until the U.N. recognizes it, it’s going to be very difficult for us to bring about big change.”Member states in Africa, Asia, and Europe have expressed interest in moving a resolution forward in the upcoming Human Rights Council sessions in 2020. But some advocates are frustrated with the U.N.’s involvement up to this point, which, at least openly, has gone little beyond providing meeting space.“In 2005, the U.N. accepted the responsibility and will to act in situations where states fail in their duty to protect their citizens,” wrote Leo Igwe, a Nigerian human rights advocate and the campaigns director at WHRIN. To Igwe, the violence evidences a clear inability of states to protect victims, and for that reason, “the U.N. needs to step in.”Regardless, the advocates agree that the U.N. is only the first step. “I don’t think it’s going to stop this century,” said Foxcroft, “might not stop next century.” But he hopes that “when they do finally pass this resolution—when they fully understand and then acknowledge the scale of the problem —then it will set in motion a series of interventions that will help put a stop to it.”Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
“I don’t think it’s going to stop this century."