Witchcraft Related Violence in PNG



Papua New Guinea (PNG) is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman or girl. There is real perception of the existence of witchcraft (also known in PNG as Sanguma). Deeply embedded norms exacerbate violence against women. Brutal attacks are meted out against those accused of practising black magic.


Seeds Theatre Group is facilitating the project “Women Not Witches” aiming to educate boys and men. Using a primary preventative approach, it aims to prevent accusations of witchcraft and violence before they take place. The focus area is Wabag (Enga) Province in the PNG Highlands. Little has been done in the past to hold the perpetrators to account. This article focuses on witchcraft accusations and the impact it has on women’s rights.


Violence against Women and Girls in PNG

Violence against women and girls is a major issue around the world and undermines women’s human rights. According to UN Women it “negatively affects women’s general well-being and prevents full participation in society” (UNWomen, 2016). Progress has been made in putting violence against women in the national and international spotlight however “not enough is being done to prevent violence, and when it does occur, it often goes unpunished” (UNWomen, 2016). PNG according to Human Rights Watch(HRW) is “one of the most dangerous places to be a woman or girl with an estimated 70 percent of women experiencing rape or assault in their lifetime” (HRW, 2016, p. 447).


The Belief in Witchcraft in PNG

Violence against women and girls in PNG is exacerbated through perceptions that “embrace superstition and a genuine belief in black magic that leads to accusations of witchcraft (Sanguma) when unforeseen events occur such as deaths in the community” (Gilchrist, 2016). Accusations often lead to brutal mob attacks on women and girls and according to HRW “permanently resettling the accused in another community is the only option” (HRW, 2016, p. 449). Little has been done by the state to address witchcraft accusations and according to the UN “the state has failed to protect individuals from interference of his/her rights by others” (UN, 2013). It is the highlands region where a majority of the accusations occur and “the violence is validated as a way of asserting authority” (Amnesty, 2013).


The 1971 Sorcery Act effectively contributed to witchcraft accusations. According to Doaemo the act “criminalised the practice of black magic, exacerbating violence, meted out by the community against those suspected of practicing Sanguma” (Doaemo, 2016). This law provision that legitimised acts of violence “was repealed in 2013 and the Family Protection Bill implemented, providing some protection for women and children at risk of violence” (Amnesty, 2013).


Christianity in PNG

A nation of predominately Christian faith, there have been “admissions of confusion” (Gibbs (a), 2015, p. 9). According to Russell, “missionaries remain a primary point of contact between rural PNG and the West, with much of the humanitarian aid dispersed in remote areas, by the Catholic and Lutheran Churches, to PNG communities” (Russell, 2015). For those who perceive witchcraft to be real, justification of violence against the accused “they often think they are doing their duty, in the sense that they feel they have to defend the clan from a malicious power that has killed and could kill again” (Gibbs(a), 2015, p. 8).


The church plays an important role in collaborating with various actors to drive change and Gibbs believes that “given that most people in PNG profess to Christianity, interpreting rights language and values into cultural frameworks is an important part of the Churches role” (Gibbs(b), 2015). Witchcraft accusation is “still an emerging concept within the context of international human rights law” (UN, 2013).


How Seeds Theatre Group is Working Against Witchcraft-Related Violence: The Women Not Witches Project

Seeds uses performing arts to “facilitate self-education, self-employment and self-reliance in community development mobilisation” (Seeds(a), 2016). Expanding projects to include gender equality advocacy, became a “grantee of UN Women, and through their support, Seeds has become more gender-responsive and more organised in its project planning, implementation and monitoring” (Seeds(a), 2016).


The Women Not Witches Project, supported by the Canadian Government is an “awareness raising outreach which aims to end violence against women accused of witchcraft” (Connolly, 2016). Focusing initially on the Wabag (Enga) Province in the Highlands region, striving to “educate men and boys and change perceptions of Sanguma, and convince them that women in their communities do not practice black magic and are not to blame for the misfortunes happening to others, they are women not witches” (Seeds(b), 2015).


Preventative Education

Research suggests that there is a “need for a primary prevention approach, to address violence before it takes place” (Eves(a), 2014). ). Focusing on educating men and boys is imperative as “despite the growing body of literature addressing the issue, including evidence base to address the issue, very little of it deliberates upon the perpetrators of these violent attacks” (Eves(a), 2014). The program is underpinned by the “intention to help men unlearn violent behaviours and underlying attitudes” (Vlais, 2014, p. 2). Engaging in dialogue with community members through drama is beneficial inasmuch as “if culturally appropriate and meaningful prevention strategies are to be developed, there is a need to understand the worldview of the perpetrators and the factors propelling their violent, often repeated, attacks” (Eves(a), 2014). Seeds using a primary prevention strategy in which “interventions can be delivered to the whole population(universal) or to particular groups that are at higher risk of using or experiencing violence in the future” (Harper, 2007).


In the short term Seeds focus was to aim to “convince boys and men that women living in their neighbourhoods have no influence on potential misfortunes that may occur and, therefore cannot be accused of sorcery and witchcraft, nor be tortured, attacked or murdered under any circumstances” (Doaemo, 2016). As there are high rates of illiteracy in PNG, Seeds found that “using drama and public discussion was an effective way of disseminating information” (Doaemo, 2016).


Violence, Public Health and the Law in PNG

Violence against women is recognised as a significant health problem “requiring urgent attention by a number of bodies at the international, national and local levels” (Harper, 2007). Social inequality and poverty is a contributing factor in the current resurgence of violence. The issues of health were expressed during the Seeds program, in which, “60% of the people interviewed said they lack proper medical facilities and that they believe in sorcery because it is part of their culture and they believe any death is the result of witchcraft ” (Doaemo, 2016).


During the witchcraft trials of Early Modern Europe it was noted that “without such beliefs there would have been no reason to pursue witches with the determination that judicial authorities manifested during the early modern period” (Levack, 2006, p. 67). Many questions come from community members where witchcraft accusations are prevalent and these include “what is the law in this area? Who has responsibility and authority to do what? If a village has a problem and wants assistance, what forms of assistance are available?” (Forsyth, 2015, p. 221).


Seeds noted that “training of performers on GBV & witchcraft-related violence training/capacity-building is very important. They were trained on how to disseminate information accurately without causing any conflict or exaggerating the problem, respecting all human rights issues” (Doaemo, 2016). Driving change is an ongoing process and “is important for developing strategies for preventing such violence in the future” (Gibbs(b), 2015).


Beyond Women Not Witches

Seeds intends on working more closely with “stakeholders such as, Human Rights Defenders before awareness is carried out in future activities and conduct research on witchcraft by developing research procedures” (Doaemo, 2016). Rights defenders in the Highlands are “committed to promoting peace building, end tribal warfare, eliminating gender based violence and give women a voice” (HWHRDM, 2016). On the ground they have managed to “rescue and resettle approximately 400 families from torture and execution since 2012, with the support of AusAid and Oxfam” (MacLean, 2014).



There is real perception of the existence of Sanguma within the highlands community. Misfortunes occurring in the community such as illness and death are not viewed as natural occurrences but are the result of Sanguma leading to violent and brutal attacks on women, accused of practicing black magic. The Women Not Witches project aims to try and change perceptions amongst boys and men using a primary preventative approach. Women Not Witches asserts that women are not witches, and they do not practice black magic and are not to blame for the misfortunes in the community. Rarely perpetrators are bought to justice and this campaign aims to prevent the violence before it occurs, raising awareness that women have rights and that laws exist to protect women from harm.


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