6 Dec 2013

Goroka conference wants research into violence blamed on sorcery

5:47 pm on 6 December 2013

There is a call for more research into sorcery in Papua New Guinea and how the long-standing custom has become twisted and abused.

Dozens of people are killed every year across PNG with the perpetrators claiming the victims were sorcerers.

This defence has traditionally been accepted and had been allowed under the Sorcery Act, though this has been repealed, while the death penalty has been re-activated.

A workshp in Goroka this week involving academics, politicians and civil society representatives aimed to come up with a more comprehensive approach to deal with the issue.

Our reporter Annell Husband has been there and I asked her what has come out of the meeting.

ANNELL HUSBAND: What's come out of the conference is the awareness that the cases that are being printed are really only the tip of the iceberg. So there's a lot of this abuse going on that's just below the radar. There are really good community initiatives in place, but in general they're under-resources, they're underfunded. People are volunteering their time and their money, so what's needed is an overall co-ordinated approach. The other thing that's come out of the conference is that although there's some good research being done and there's some good figures like who believes in sorcery? What percentage of men? What percentage of women? And what sort of cases are being reported, so attacks against men or attacks against women? Interestingly, the statistics that are available show that men are more likely to be the targets of violence, which just doesn't correlate with the anecdotal evidence that was presented. So the point I'm making is that what was acknowledged by everyone is that actually a lot more research needs to be done. So although some has been done and the worst pockets of the violence are known, for example Simbu province. But then the research needs to drill down and find out exactly what sort of attacks are taking place, why they're taking place, who are the perpetrators, who are the victims? It was acknowledged that really not enough is known. So to come in, as the government is doing, with a fairly blunt instrument of the death penalty is not agreed by all as the way to go about it. Actually there should be more consultation and more investigation as to the right way to approach this problem.

DON WISEMAN: The government has also made changes to the Sorcery Act, hasn't it?

AH: There's a lot of confusion about that. What does that actually mean? Some people at the conference, from what they were saying, weren't aware of the extent of the changes. The government represented at the conference were saying they're going to reinstate portions of the Sorcery Act. So it's all a bit all over the place. And the other thing is people in rural communities, they actually don't know. They don't know what's going on. They don't know there's the death penalty. They don't know the sorcery legislation has been repealed. They're really in the dark about all of it. What was acknowledged at the conference is that the people in the rural areas, the people who don't have a strong connection with the state, they're the people that actually need to be consulted and they're the ones with the solutions. That was a very strong theme that came out, was that communities know their own problems and they also know their own solutions. They don't necessarily need to have solutions imposed from the top down.

DW: You mentioned that there are community initiatives that are well regarded. What sort of things are we talking about?

AH: Well, there's the village court system which has been in place for many years. So there are a lot of hardworking people involved in that. Basically, sorcery cases should be referred to the village court. The thing is people are so afraid that the village courts don't want to deal with them. That is the problem, is that people are so afraid, they just don't want to have anything to do with the sorcery cases. So that includes the police. It includes the judges, the staff of the courts and of course the people in communities. That's why these terrible attacks and murders take place, because people are so afraid to get involved in case they end up being targeted.

DW: Coming away from the conference, is there an optimism that the country can get on top of this problem?

AH: I think there's a mixture of optimism and resignation as to the way things are. The fact that a number of people from government and the top echelons of the police, like the deputy police commissioner, who were meant to be at the conference, were not there. So it's been a little bit of a reflection, although the government is expressing strong commitment to tackling this problem, how far is it actually going to see that through? However, on the part of the delegates and particularly women delegates - this is my perception - the women delegates expressed very strong sentiments of hope and optimism that this problem... What was great about this forum was that it brought all of these different activists, NGOs, civil society, the chap from the government, the secretary to the Department of Justice and attorney generals and the police, the church leaders, community leaders, and just people who wanted to be there, it brought them all together for the first time to talk about this, because it has traditionally been something that, although sorcery is widely discussed, I was told by many people that it's as much a topic of conversation as what you're going to have for dinner that night. That is discussed, but what is not discussed is this violence. So it was seen as a really positive thing that this was getting this amount of attention. And I have to say, the people that I spoke with were optimistic that the government would take action.