Association for Free Research and International Cooperation

Elderly women often accused of witchcraft: what explains this phenomenon?

It is usually a very common sight in Africa to find elderly people being accused and maltreated simply because they have been termed ‘witches’. Most of the time, they are even the relatives of these elderly people that put the blame on them for being witches, after encountering one misfortune or the other. What remains a cause for great concern is why will this very vulnerable group of persons in the society are being accused of such a practice?

The Cambridge Dictionary defines a witch to be a woman who is believed to have magical powers and who uses them to harm or help other people and witchcraft as the activity of performing magic to help or harm other people. Usually in Africa, when one experiences misfortunes or mishaps of any form like loss of children, loss of job, sickness, poverty, etc., it is attributed to witchcraft. The continent has long standing history of unusual complex belief systems, especially in the existence and powers of witches which encompasses every sector of the society. Such beliefs have frequently resulted in persecution, social rejection, discrimination and violence toward those who are believed to be or who identify themselves as witches. In many African societies, the elderly women are much more prone to accusations of witchcraft practices than the elderly men. Most of the time, they are referred to as the evil or weird person against whom members of their own families, local community, and society at large have always taken punitive action. It therefore does not come as surprise that across Africa, thousands of elderly women accused of witchcraft have been burned, buried alive, chopped to pieces and tortured to death. For example in Tanzania, between 2004 and 2009, over 2,585 elderly women were reportedly killed due to witchcraft accusations. According to a Tanzanian human rights group, an estimated 500suspected witches are killed in the east African state annually. Another example points to Zimbabwe, where, over  20 elderly women were hacked to death between 2010 and 2011 over witchcraft allegations, while several others were physically, sexually, psychologically abused, banished and deprived of food assistance.

Violence is mostly the order of the day when allegations of witchcraft arise, both in getting confessions and in terms of punishment. Predominantly in the rural areas, where this phenomenon is alarming, these allegations surface as a result of personal jealousy, hatred by family members, neighbours or members of the community. Others are based on deeply rooted cultural beliefs, gender and age based discrimination. Witchcraft accusations against elderly women are often instigated by family members, due to the low value placed on them within polygamous family systems. For instance, in most Nigerian towns and cities, a lynch mob and other perpetrators take part in the violence against the accused. In the rural areas, persons who have experienced loss, illness, death or any other calamity, often consult traditional healers or soothsayers who ask them to point out whom in the family or community has been “bewitching” them. On the other hand, in cities, pastors or men of God in general point them out during “prophesy” or “deliverance”. Moreover, individuals regularly accuse elderly women of causing their ill luck, disease or death. Even though the precise numbers of elderly women persecuted over witchcraft accusation are unknown due to lack of reporting, scholars generally agree that the number of such elderly women in the last decades is on the rise.

What are Witches Camps?

A witch camp has been defined as a settlement where women suspected of being witches can flee for safety, usually in order to avoid being lynched by neighbours. Such camps are thought to exist exclusively in Ghana, where there are at least six of them, housing a total of around 1000 women. It should be noted here that these camps found in Bonyasi, Gambaga, Gnani, Kpatinga, Kukuo and Naabuli, are all in the Northern part of the country. Some of the camps are thought to have been set up over 100 years ago. The camps most harbor women who are widows and it is believed that their relatives accused them of witchcraft in order to take control of their husbands’ possessions.

Consequences of Witchcraft Accusations on Elderly Women’s Rights

Elderly women accused of witchcraft suffer significant and wide ranging violations of their human rights. The consequences of these abuses have physical and psychological damages such as relationship problems or lack of self-confidence. It is not strange to hear that elderly women accused of witchcraft suffer malnutrition and emotional distress. They also suffer violation of rights which range from the right to be free from violence, abuse and neglect, the right to life, the right to be free from torture, the right to non-discrimination. These are just a few of the consequences that witchcraft accusations have on the rights of elderly women in the society.

What then has the society done, or is doing to avoid such practices? In Ghana for example, the government has announced that it intends to close witches camps and educate the population on the fact that witches do not exist.  In 2014 the Minister for Gender and Social Protection took initiatives to disband and re-integrate inmates of the Bonyasi witch camp located in Central Gonja District. Other governments are equally prosecuting people caught in the act of maltreating, tormenting or even murdering these ‘supposed witches’. In October 2014, Tanzanian police charged 23 people with murder after seven villagers were burned alive on suspicion of witchcraft.

Article from AFRIC Editorial.

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