UN HRC: Witches in the 21st Century

Publication Date: 
August 24, 2011
UN Special Rapporteur Phillip Alston. (Photo: UN OHCHR)

Throughout history, people described as witches have been persecuted, tortured and murdered and the practice continues today. Statistics are not easy to come by but it is known that every year, thousands of people, mostly older women and children are accused as witches, often abused, cast out of their families and communities and in many cases murdered.

The Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Philip Alston, in his most recent report to the Human Rights Council, says: “In too many settings, being classified as a witch is tantamount to receiving a death sentence.”

Shockingly, it is children that are increasingly targeted. A report for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees published in January 2009, “Witchcraft Allegations, Refugee Protection and Human Rights”, says the abuse of children accused of witchcraft is common in countries that have suffered years of conflict where traditional social structures have disappeared and where child soldiers have often emerged as a threat. And in countries where sudden deaths from diseases like AIDS are common, where there are few if any prospects of a better life, and where revivalist churches confirm signs of witchcraft, children are often accused of supernatural powers and persecuted.

Alston concludes: “The persecution and killing of individuals accused of practicing so-called “witchcraft” – the vast majority of whom are women and children – is a significant phenomenon in many parts of the world.” The response to witchcraft “frequently involves serious and systematic forms of discrimination,” he says, “especially on the grounds of gender, age and disability.” The families of the witches are also “often subjected to serious human rights violations.”

In his report, Alston offers an insight into the size of the problem and its geographical spread;

  • Reports from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) suggest that most of the 25,000 – 50,000 children living on the streets of the capital, Kinshasa are there because they have been accused of witchcraft and rejected by their families. In 2009 The Committee on the Rights of the Child noted that in the DRC “violence against children accused of witchcraft is increasing, and that children are being kept as prisoners in religious buildings where they are exposed to torture and ill-treatment or even killed under the pretext of exorcism.” 
  • The Special Rapporteur on violence against women has highlighted the problem of witch hunts in India, Nepal and South Africa.
  • In Ghana it is thought as many as 2,000 accused witches and their dependents are confined in five different camps. Most of the camp inmates are destitute, elderly women and some have been forced to live there for decades.
  • The murder and persecution of people accused of witchcraft in Tanzania is better documented than in most countries. The figures vary widely but it is estimated as many as a thousand, mostly elderly Tanzanian women are targeted and killed annually. 
  • In Angola, the Committee on the Rights of the Child has called for “immediate action to eliminate the mistreatment of children accused of witchcraft”.
  • In Papua New Guinea, provincial police commanders reportedly said there were more than 50 sorcery-related killings in 2008. Other sources have suggested much higher figures.
  • In Nigeria, the Child Rights and Rehabilitation Network reports an increasing number of children abandoned or persecuted on the grounds they are witches or wizards.
  • In Nepal, elderly women and widows are often singled out and abused in exorcism ceremonies.

In considering how to address the problem, the Special Rapporteur has said that making it illegal to believe in witchcraft is not a solution. Respect for customary beliefs, however does not allow for persecution and murder. Alston recommends in his report that all killings of alleged witches be treated as murder and investigated, prosecuted and punished. And governments, he says, must play their part, taking all available steps to prevent such crimes and prosecute and punish perpetrators.

Alston also recommends that the problems surrounding the persecution and killings be reflected in the guidelines and programs of development agencies operating in countries where there is a significant level of belief in witches and witchcraft. Alston wants more than awareness-raising programmes. He believes protection should be offered to those whose lives are endangered by accusations of witchcraft.

24 August 2009