Nearly daily there are news reports on abuses inflicted on people who have been accused of witchcraft. Just today the Zambia Daily Mail reported that a man was killed and another beaten over such accusations. These horrifying cases occur all over the world with a concentration in the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, India and Nepal.
In most of these attacks, the victims are not Pagans or Witches in a western sense and are not likely practicing any form of witchcraft. The accusations are simply used as weapon against the unwanted who are more often than not women. Fortunately with the continued growth of the international women’s movement, these acts of violence are becoming the subject of real concern and decisive action.
Today we can report that Nepal, the country with the highest concentration of attacks, has taken some concrete steps to curb and, hopefully end, witchcraft-related violence. According to the Republica:
The government is working to finalize a draft of the ´Witchcraft Act (Charge and Punishment) 2014 to take stringent action against those involved in the inhuman treatment of females accused of practicing witchcraft.
The new Witchcraft Act was prepared by Nepal’s Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare (MoWCSW), a federal department dedicated to the legal protection that particular segment of the population. On its website, the Department states:
Its mandate is to empower women especially those who are economically poor … socially deprived or at a disadvantage.
The most recent draft of the Witchcraft Act states that the accuser can be fined up to 1,050 USD and given up to a ten-year jail sentence. According to the Republica, the act makes it clear that “torturing women through thrashing, slandering, smearing them with black soot, pouring acid on them or forcibly feeding them feces, on the charge of witchcraft, will be considered a crime.”
This is the first time that the Nepalese government has legislated the meaning of the term witchcraft. While that definition may be a far cry from that found in the U.S. or Europe, the effort will potentially alleviate some of problems and, thereby, open opportunities for more progressive and aggressive work towards eradicating the problem.
A good example is South Africa which has had a Witchcraft Suppression Act since 1957, later revised in 1970. According to this law, accusations of witchcraft carry with them a fine of over 30,000 USD and up to ten years in prison. While the law has certainly not stopped the problem, it has provided a legal grounding that serves to elevate the conversation within the country. Today South Africa has an active Pagan organization, South African Pagan Right’s Alliance, that can openly fight against these senseless accusations as well as work with government officials towards a legal dissection of the modern meanings of witchcraft.
Nepal hasn’t reached that point in the process. Like the original South African law, the new Nepal law makes the accusations illegal but also fails to specifically recognize or allow for Witchcraft as a legitimate magical practice found within folk religious traditions or modern Paganisms. According to the Republica, the new Act will permit police investigations of those legally accused of witchcraft.
As with many of the areas that suffer from witchcraft-related violence, Nepal’s problem is grounded in deeply-rooted cultural beliefs. As reported by the Witchcraft and Human Rights Information Network (WHRIN), the “belief in witchcraft” is embedded in the country’s “strong animistic and shamanic tradition.” Nepalese Shamans work with the spirit world to heal and assist the living but bokshi or “witches” are considered detrimental influences who only can bring harm to society.
The report also cites the problematic influence of the so-called Witch Doctor who often holds a good deal of power over a village. For the right price, these men will perform spiritual investigations to locate the source of a bewitchment. Their accusations are often guided by the whims of their clientele and not a concern for the general well-being of the population. (WHRIN 2014 Country Report: Nepal)
Currently there are multiple organizations in Nepal fighting to protect women from the horrors of witchcraft-related abuse. One of these organizations is The Woman’s Foundation of Nepal founded in 1988 by a group of concerned female college students. While its mission is to help Nepalese women in general, the organization is an active participant in the fight against witchcraft-related violence. Its website states:
Often widows in Nepal are termed “bokshi”, or witches, and are subject to extreme abuse and discrimination. Many of the victims have led very difficult lives, and once accused of being a ‘bokshi’, are beaten, tortured, or forced to commit degrading acts such as eating human waste, or the meat of other humans … In cases where women are being abused for “practicing witchcraft,” WFN directly supports the victims by removing them from that dangerous situation, treating them medically if necessary, and supporting them legally to file a case against their accusers.
The Forum for Protection of People’s Rights, Nepal (PPR Nepal) is another similar organization who worked closely with WHRIN to produced the 2014 Nepal country report. PPR Nepal says, “The magnitude of gender-based violence in Nepal is extremely high. Among the various forms of violence, witchcraft related violence especially against unprivileged women e.g. widow, poor, helpless is widespread in the country.”
As with other countries experiencing high levels of witchcraft-related violence, Nepal continues to struggle with extreme poverty, lack of education and sub-standard medical care. Advocacy organizations are not blind to the bigger problem within that bigger framework. Therefore their work often incorporates education, medical treatment and job placement.
With the new Witchcraft Act in place, the NGO advocacy groups and the Ministry will have another tool in their pocket to support their work. While the law is certainly not a panacea, it does provide the legal fuel needed in their fight to protect the rights and health of the women of Nepal. Over time, this Act and others like it may lead to opportunities for inter-cultural work and inter-religious education that will grow a better global understanding of the many meanings of Witchcraft.