Victims of sorcery accusations need not suffer in silence: highland survivor

In the Melanesian past, the killing of accused witches is remembered as an extremely rare occurrence. Village hearings were controlled affairs that considered evidence under the authority of chiefs and elders. Such cases almost never made it to the national courts.

These days, the fate of accused witches at the hands of lynch mobs makes headlines, like the 20-year-old mother doused with petrol and burnt alive in Mount Hagen last February. The controlling hand of elders has been replaced, especially in Papua New Guinea's highlands, by the public spectacle of prolonged torture and death.

Partly in response to awareness of such atrocities, the Port Moresby government recently repealed its rarely-used Sorcery Act enacted by the colonial administration. This law was seen by its opponents as underpinning the widespread belief in sorcery and thereby lending credence to accusations that often triggered violent scapegoating.

When the history of Melanesia's encounter with sorcery-related violence is finally written, it may be the chapter on a group of highland women from Chimbu province - not legislative gestures in the capital - that proves to be its most gripping tale.

Telinga Media spoke to one of the women last week at a conference in Canberra.

Some forms of sorcery consist of straight out blood or food poisoning or straight out murder. Other forms of sorcery consist of powerful psychological persuasion. At some stage the victim will be informed that he or she has been sorcerised. The fear works on the mind and the make up of the victim until he eventually dies.

Evil sorcery according to custom was never indiscriminate. Every evil sorcery killing had to be authorised by elders and justified as an act of vengeance over one sort of injustice, wrong doing or another. Nowadays, evil sorcery tends to be indiscriminate, and tends to be organised on an individualistic basis, without justification or approval from the village or clan elders. 

Evil sorcery is not permitted under customary law, if it is practiced without good reasons or without authority from elders. In societies without an organised police force and without a jail system, evil sorcery was used as the final and ultimate sanction against persistent wrong doers or violators of the customary laws. If used against innocent people, it certainly called for retaliatory killing or deliberate exile of the sorcerer from the community of the innocent victim.

- Law Reform Commission of PNG, October 1977


Monica Paulus and Mary Kini spoke at the conference on Sorcery & Witchcraft-Related Killings in Melanesia: Culture, Law & Human Rights Perspectives

on 5 June at the Australian National University, Canberra


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