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Women Not Witches: Meet the People Fighting Sorcery Attacks in Papua New Guinea

A new program run by a theatre company is teaching Papua New Guineans in remote communities how to combat violence against those suspected of witchcraft, who are often maimed, beheaded, or burned alive.
Photo via AP

An alarming series of superstitious attacks in recent years persecuting women in Papua New Guinea for supposed "sorcery" has prompted concerned citizens to take matters into their own hands.

Spiritualism has a long history in Papua New Guinea, whose government passed a law denouncing the use of black magic in 1971. The dark arts are often blamed for problems ranging from poverty and disease to natural disasters, and accusations have spurred mob violence. Those suspected of witchcraft are often maimed, beheaded, or burned alive. Though women are routinely singled out, men have also been targeted. The United Nations and groups like Amnesty International have cited hundreds of incidents of sorcery-related violence over the past few years.


The government's repeal two years ago of the 1971 Sorcery Act has done little to abate the violence. In January, the Seeds Theatre Group launched a project called Women Not Witches to counter widespread superstitions and the frequent incidents of violence against women, and it is already helping to save lives.

'Every day there is suspicion of sorcery. Women are tortured and killed perhaps two to three times a month.'

Just two days after attending a Women Not Witches workshop earlier this month in the country's Western Highlands Province, Paul Petrus and Gabriel Bak came to the aid of an older woman suspected of being a witch. Upon returning to his home village of Komkui, Bak discovered a group of young men terrorizing the woman in a cemetery.

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Petrus told VICE News that Bak phoned him in Mt. Hagen to explain what was happening and to seek his help.

"The youths were torturing her — they cut her, beat her, and burnt her. They burnt her private parts," he said. "She was tortured for around three hours."

Petrus alerted local police before meeting Bak at the scene, where they confronted the young men and warned them of the legal consequences of their actions. They persuaded them to release the woman, whom they accompanied to a hospital for treatment.

The woman was from a different province and said that she had been kidnapped earlier in the day and taken away from her village before she managed to escape near Komkui.


"She escaped from them and she started running back along the road," explained Petrus. "She stopped to rest on the roadside, and that's when the youths who were guarding the cemetery found her."

There had been a burial that day, and her appearance afterward sparked distrust among the men.

"Because she was a foreigner and she was confused about why she was there, they started accusing her of sorcery and torturing her," Petrus said. "The youths didn't want to let her go. They wanted her to explain what she was doing there and why she was at the cemetery."

He visited the women in the hospital yesterday, and described her as "still very traumatized. She cannot walk."

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Petrus intends to put the training he received from Women Not Witches to use by establishing a rapid response team in Mt. Hagen to combat sorcery-related violence.

"If there was no rescue then the women would have died," Willie Doaemo, project manager for the Seeds Theatre Group, told VICE News. "Women die daily without being reported in isolated regions in the highlands of PNG."

The Women Not Witches project endeavors to educate locals in remote communities about the natural causes of misfortune, and underscore to them that the killing of people accused of witchcraft is a criminal offence.

"Because of the isolation of the communities, most killings are not reported," said Doameo. "Law enforcers are not equipped to carry out their assignment."

Women Not Witches has trained roughly 20 community leaders and reached some 3,000 people. Its organizers hope to hold workshops across the country and reach many thousands more. The main challenge is to dispel superstitious suspicions among the public — beliefs that are "spreading like cancer," according to Petrus.

"It's spread throughout the provinces and the country," he advised. "Every day there is suspicion of sorcery. Women are tortured and killed perhaps two to three times a month."

Observers have said that the situation is worsening, with young gangs taking it upon themselves to rid communities of accused witches. Just last month there were reports of women having to flee their homes in Enga Province, in the country's northern highlands.

Follow Max Rann on Twitter: @RannMax