PNG, Local 'Power Plays' Behind Rise In Sorcery-Related Violence

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Sorcery often ‘pretext to mask abuse of women’

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (PNG Post-Courier, August 3, 2014) – Young men in Papua New Guinea are using sorcery-related violence to gain status and power in their local communities, according to the head of PNG's Institute of National Affairs.

Paul Barker has told Pacific Beat the attacks are often the result of complex "power plays" among men at the village level, with women the majority of victims.

"It's led by groups of young men who seeking status in society, partly by (joining) gangs and terrorizing potential victims," he said.

"They're also demonstrating their power versus that of the traditional leadership, including the more modern leadership, the local village court magistrates and other leaders.

"You've had high population growth and there are a limited number of activities to give young men status in the community. This does appear to be one mechanism whereby they intimidate particularly the weaker people within the community."

There have long been reports that attacks against those accused of sorcery or witchcraft in PNG are on the rise.

Paul Barker says the rise of seemingly "unexplained deaths" due to HIV AIDS or tuberculosis, along with the decline of local health services, have added to community anxieties.

Earlier this year, Amnesty International said it had received reports of girls as young as eight being attacked and accused of sorcery and children being orphaned as a result of one or both their parents being killed after accusations of witchcraft.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women in 2012 found that sorcery is often used as a pretext to mask the abuse of women.

"In many cases it occurs when someone's husband dies and immediately - instead of looking at the wife and the community coming and supporting her - they pinpoint her, target her and accuse her of having killed the husband using sorcery," Mr Barker said.

Sweeping law reforms announced last year mean that any black magic killing is now treated as murder punishable by death in PNG.

But Amnesty says the reforms have not reduced the violence. It's urged the government to develop urgent measures to protect women at risk, including establishing shelters and providing emergency funds to help them escape.

Paul Barker says there are "very courageous efforts" by local groups such as the Kup Women for Peace and Simbu Defenders who attempt to rescue people who have been threatened and who receive little protection from police.

"These women go in at great risk to themselves to rescue the victims or the potential victims," he said.

"But we've seen photographs of police standing on one side watching events. Maybe they're too outnumbered. Maybe they're too much part of the community."

Mr Barker says the current climate leaves women terrified of being accused of sorcery or witchcraft.

"If you attend the funeral or if you're not showing sufficient remorse or sufficient upset following someone's death then the finger risks getting pointed at you as maybe having collaborated in the whole thing," he said.

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