Experts propose a raft of measures to end harmful practices related to witchcraft and respect human rights

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Witchcraft composition with witch’s hands holding a quill satanic magic book with pentagram symbol. PHOTO/PIXABAY

By PATRICK MAYOYO

newsdesk@reporter.co.ke

More than 100 United Nations and other international experts have identified a series of effective ways to curb and stop human rights violations caused by a “disturbing diversity of harmful practices” related to witchcraft.

Concrete measures identified include strengthening research and data collection, reviewing relevant laws, collaborating with and monitoring the work of traditional healers, prohibiting newspaper advertisements of witchcraft practitioners, and regulating independent faith-based practices.

The experts stressed in a summary of their proposals, which emerged from a ground-breaking workshop held in Geneva, that all measures must reflect a human rights approach and should be comprehensive, with governments working closely with communities and civil society.

“An approach that combines legislative action with improvements in child protection, education, health, justice, social protection, economic and livelihood measures, and gender equality and empowerment is essential, with the strong involvement of traditional healers, faith leaders, and groups vulnerable to such attacks,” they said.

In many developing countries including Kenya, people suspected of being  witchcraft practitioners are subjected to various human rights violations that include killings, ritual attacks and mutilations, human sacrifice, torture, inhuman and degrading treatment, discrimination and isolation.

Residents inspect one of the houses of suspected witches that were razed to the ground in Nyamira County. PHOTO | JACOB OWITI | NATION MEDIAS GROUP 

One of the main convenors of the event, the UN Independent Expert on the human rights of persons with albinism, Ikponwosa Ero, said: “The workshop helped us better understand the complex web of meaning behind witchcraft, a phenomenon with various manifestations.

“It also helped to identify potential solutions to prevent and address human rights violations that are still committed on a daily basis throughout the world. These include killings, ritual attacks and mutilations, human sacrifice, torture, inhumane and degrading treatment, discrimination and isolation, among many other harmful practices,” she said.

The UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary killings, Agnes Callamard, stressed that witchcraft-related violations of the right to life amounted to arbitrary killings, triggering State responsibility.

“In practical terms, this means the State must do everything in its power to prevent the occurrence of witchcraft-related killings, including by actively countering harmful stereotyping,” said Ms. Callamard.

She further recommended that witchcraft-related killings be treated as “hate crimes”, thus demanding a range of additional legal, investigatory, sentencing and protection measures.  

A relative of 75-year-old Mary Matibe, who was burnt to death by people who accused her of practising witchcraft, in Ngeri in Bonchari, Kisii on April 19, 2016. PHOTO | BENSON MOMANYI | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

She called for firm legal protection, implementation of non-discrimination measures, and demonstration of the effectiveness of State policies and practices with regard to prevention, investigation, punishment and remedies.  

Noting that harmful witchcraft beliefs and practices resulted in gross violations of women’s rights, the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, Dubravka Šimonović, called on States to apply due diligence to prevent such acts, to protect victims and to punish perpetrators.

Ms. Šimonović also called for a holistic approach aimed at the eradication of violence against women, including comprehensive human rights education and awareness-raising programmes, as well as changes in any laws that supported such harmful practices and human rights violations.

Expressing her strong support for the event, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Violence against Children, Marta Santos Pais, called for effective measures to free children from the risk of violence associated with witchcraft accusations to be put in place urgently.

“This is critical to ensure that children are fully protected from all forms of violence by the 2030 deadline set by the Sustainable Development Goals,” Ms Santos Pais said.

Ms Santos Pais said being accused of witchcraft is a form of psychological violence in itself and is often associated with unspeakable attacks that amount to torture.

She added that even when child victims survive, they are often stigmatized, abandoned and forced to live on the street where an even more vulnerable life awaits them.

“These acts of violence are largely under-reported and remain concealed, impunity prevails and children rarely have access to recovery and social re-integration mechanisms,” added SRSG Santos Pais.

Speakers at the workshop, including those from the United Kingdom, Malawi, Nigeria, Tanzania, Australia, India and Papua New Guinea, presented examples of the impact of witchcraft on the human rights of people in vulnerable situations and how they responded to them. Victims of harmful practices related to witchcraft also recounted their experiences.

Participants recommended spearheading action on the issue as part of States’ commitment to end all forms of violence and leave no one behind under the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

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