10 Jun 2013

Conference addresses PNG's sorcery-related violence

6:21 pm on 10 June 2013

A solution to sorcery-related violence in Papua New Guinea was one of the major themes of a conference in Canberra last week. The three-day conference, at the Australian National University, looked at the wider issue of the belief in sorcery in Melanesia.

Sorcery in PNG has been in the spotlight for a number of recent gruesome incidents involving women being tortured and killed after being accused of witchcraft.

The conference was attended by a number of people seen to be critical to solving the problem of sorcery killings in PNG.

Jamie Tahana reports:

JAMIE TAHANA: Monica Paulus, from the Women's Human Rights Defenders organisation, works with victims of sorcery violence in Simbu province. She says she has helped women, men and children who have suffered horrific torture as a result of being accused of witchcraft. Ms Paulus says the few victims who survive these attacks are left traumatised and forced to leave town with nothing. She says the police are severely under-resourced and often can't, or don't want to, investigate sorcery-related violence.

MONICA PAULUS: We do report cases to the police. We ask them to assist, but along the way there's always excuses. From the 36 cases that we've had only 1 was successful. He had a lot of money, that's all.

JAMIE TAHANA: Helen Hakena is the head of the Bougainville Human Rights Committee. She says the severely under-resourced police force needs to have the ability to stop the killings.

HELEN HAKENA: They need to investigate and prosecute all cases of sorcery-related killings. Because here in Bougainville, we have seen that the Police. They are outnumbered by criminals, they are outnumbered by the number of cases we have, they are outnumbered by issues, they don't have vehicles or they do not have enough manpower.

JAMIE TAHANA: One of the main topics discussed at the conference is the influence of churches in PNG, and how they can bring about change. Father Philip Gibbs, from the Catholic Bishops Conference, says one thing his church is doing is diverting attention away from sorcery when somebody dies and convincing the family that revenge is not the answer. He says this approach is having an effect, but it doesn't work with everyone. The director of the Melanesian Institute, Jack Urame, who is also a Lutheran pastor, says sorcery is a core part of Melanesian spirituality. He says the belief is part of the culture, and the churches have a vital role in spreading the word that it is not good to accuse somebody of sorcery and then hunt them down.

PHILIP GIBBS: Sorcery belief lies in the culture of Melanesian spirituality, and sometime to penetrate through the culture is very difficult. It will take many years but I think we need a collective approach from the churches, from the government, from the civil society.

JAMIE TAHANA: Philip Gibbs says people often don't understand the basic science behind a person's health. He says when someone dies, some people will immediately blame black magic and hunt down the alleged sorcerer, then proceed to torture and kill them. Jack Urame says the church is trying to use its influence to tell people that when misfortune strikes, it probably isn't caused by sorcery.

JACK URAME: When people face crisis through sickness or death or any other disorders in their society we try to help to understand in a different way. For example, sickness and death are caused by, for example, by dirt or virus or something. So we help them to understand through a different lens.

JAMIE TAHANA: Philip Gibbs says a culture of blame and revenge is pervasive in PNG, and this needs to change.

PHILIP GIBBS: To try to help people come to a more scientific understanding of how things happen and why things happen. For instance, if somebody has an accident here usually the question asked will be, 'Well, who's behind it?' They're always looking for a personalised form of evil that's behind it.

JAMIE TAHANA: Jack Urame says Papua New Guinea is fast becoming modernised but, unlike some Western countries, traditional beliefs are sticking, which in some ways is good, but in the case of sorcery, very bad. He says people are confused between what their culture and science tells them.

JACK URAME: The new changes come in and people try to adapt to the new development, but at the same time they try to integrate their traditional belief to make sense of the new changes and so they are in a state of confusion.

But Philip Gibbs says not all religious groups share the same view of trying to end sorcery-related killings. He says some groups are still actively preaching sorcery to sizeable followings, which they are perfectly entitled to do.

PHILIP GIBBS: Papua New Guinea has freedom of religion and people are free to believe and churches are free to express their understandings. We would speak out against those sorts of understandings that come from some of the other churches.

Jack Urame says educating people about the negative aspects of sorcery will take a very long time. But all agree the government plays a vital role in ending sorcery-related killings in PNG, and their recent moves to reduce violent crime were heavily scrutinised at the conference. Mr Gibbs says the move to abolish the sorcery act was a very good move.

PHILIP GIBBS: I think the abolition of the sorcery act was a positive step but it's only one very, very small step. What has to happen is there has to be a change of heart and a change of understanding and there also has to be changes in the way the police and the law and order situation.

However, the decision to re-implement the death penalty was widely criticised as a retrograde step that will do more harm than good. Here's Monica Paulus.

MONICA PAULUS: This will not help and this will not even solve the problems that we have. This will increase a lot of problems because when they hear about it, it's like 'Okay, once I'm prosecuted I will go and face the death penalty. Before I go there I will get rid of those that will make me face that'.

Richard Eves from the Australian National University was the convenor of the conference. He says everyone who attended has learnt a lot about a very complex topic. He says the conference has achieved what he set out to do - working towards policy that will make a difference.

RICHARD EVES: I think the general acknowledgement from the conference was that we need to approach this in a really holistic sense in terms of, there's a whole range of development type issues that need to be addressed as part of the problem.

Richard Eves says following on from the Canberra conference, he is planning to stage another in the PNG highlands later this year, where the issue can be specifically discussed with the affected communities.