Toil and Trouble

How Conflict and Climate Change are Triggering Witch Hunts

A Mozambican curandeira or witch doctor performs a cleaning ceremony in Maputo, September 29, 2010. Goran Tomasevic / Reuters

In July, an angry mob in India dragged a 63-year-old mother of five out of her home and beheaded her after the local goddess accused her of casting evil spells. The victim was one of dozens in the southern state of Assam who have lost their lives due to accusations of witchcraft in recent months. But the problem is not limited to India or even the South Asian region. At the end of June, the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) beheaded two women for witchcraft. In February, an albino child from Tanzania was killed and mutilated for the very same reason. Last year, in Zimbabwe, a man stoned his 71-year-old uncle to death for sorcery. There are dozens of similar stories across the developing world.

Although it is tempting to dismiss these stories as anomalies, witch hunts are very much a modern problem. The United Nations published a report in 2009 on the alarming number of cases around the world, regardless of region. For example, in 2008, there were more than 50 sorcery-related killings in Papua New Guinea. In India, Nepal, and South Africa, there have been increased reports of violence against women accused of witchcraft in recent years. In a study of 41 countries around the world, the Witchcraft and Human Rights Information Network found that there were over 800 abused or killed in 2013 alone for alleged witchcraft. Given that the majority of cases go unreported, and that accurate statistics are nearly impossible to find, these figures almost certainly represent only a very small portion of a much larger problem.

Bolivian indigenous witch doctors, June 21, 2014. David Mercado / Reuters

The majority of victims are women, but children are deeply affected too. According to the UN High Commission on Refugees, there are 25,000 to 50,000 children living on the streets of Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Most of them were abandoned for being possessed. The report highlights that, before they landed on the streets, these children were often imprisoned, abused, and tortured. They

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