Pandemic impact on “witch-hunts”

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TWH –  The current pandemic has had an impact in countries around the world in a variety of ways, particularly in how it has affected economic and social infrastructures. One unwelcome impact is how it has driven up the cases of “witch-hunts” which are fueled by ignorance, superstitions, and the belief in malignant magical practices.

Please note that when “witchcraft” and “witch-hunt” are placed within quotation marks it denotes a belief and practice that is in no way associated with modern Pagan or Witchcraft practices. The victims of “witch-hunts” are usually not Pagans, Witches, or practicing any spiritual practice that could be considered Pagan.

In the recent past, there have been epidemic levels of “witch-hunts” in developing nations whose victims were the elderly, children, and anyone who presently differently—those with albinism, those suffering from mental or physical health issues, and those with any disability issue that might set them apart. Until recently, the number of cases had been on the decline. Social unrest, epidemics, and pandemics frequently cause a rise in cases.

Health care workers can also become targets of violence, as evidenced by the attacks on health facilities that occurred in December last year during the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo. That attack left four Ebola response workers dead, and cause the World Health Organization to pull some of its resources back due to threats.

While that attack was not specifically attributed to a belief in “witchcraft” in reports, it is not unusual for health care treatments to be viewed as “unnatural” and as some type of potentially baneful magical work, especially if patients being treated die.

Renewed efforts to educate villagers in not only these developing countries but to also to help educate immigrants to other more developed nations are being undertaken by several organizations.

Last September, The Witchcraft and Human Rights Information Network (WHRIN) launched a new program, Witch Way Forward whose campaign overview is to protect the rights of:

“Innocent women, children, older persons and people with disabilities, including those with albinism, are being tortured and killed every day due to harmful practices related to manifestations of belief in witchcraft (HPW). Some are hacked to death for their body parts to be used in magic spells. Others are burned and beaten due to the belief they are evil. This is not the 16th Century. It needs to stop. And now you can help bring about this change by supporting the Witch Way Forward Campaign and committing to take action to help prevent some of the 21st Century’s most horrific human rights abuses.”

WHRIN offered a webinar last month designed to help explore the connections between public health and “witchcraft” beliefs and provide community leaders with a toolkit to help them combat the dangerous beliefs that fuel and proliferate the practices of “witch-hunts.”

It’s not just developing nations that have had to look to education to increase their citizens understanding of public health. Within the U.K. the number of cases of child abuse linked to “witchcraft” beliefs has also been on the rise, largely due to immigrant populations who bring their beliefs about “witchcraft” with them.

An article published last year by The Guardian and another by Sky News highlighted the rise in child abuse due to beliefs in “witchcraft.” Both articles highlighted a government report that cited a 34% increase in similar cases, and the fact that nearly 2000 cases had been investigated in the 2018/2019 fiscal year.

Often superstitions and beliefs that center on malignant magical practices supersede medical knowledge and a health crisis is attributed to “witchcraft” rather than seeking medical care. A recent tragic case in India highlights how dangerous these beliefs can be.

Last week in the eastern state of India, Jharkhand, Sakal Tuddu, 57, bearing the decapitated head of the woman he believed was a “witch” and had caused his son’s fatal illness, turned himself in at the local police station. According to news reports, Tuddu told the policemen present at the station, “This woman had killed my young son by practicing witchcraft but I have avenged his death. Please arrest me.”

Tuddu with the help of local villagers raided the home of 55-year-old Matlu Chaurai, who he believed to be a “witch,” a home she shared with her husband and three children. She was apparently in bed asleep with her husband and one of her daughters when he beheaded her. Reports state that the woman’s family did not react due to their fear of also being attacked.

These types of crimes are hardly random in Jharkhand alone over 228 similar cases have occurred in the past six years. Women are frequent targets, but not always.

Last week in the Awa-Ijebu area of the Ogun State of Nigeria, a seven-year-old child found her way to the home of a police officer who lives on the same street as the house she lives in with her grandfather and told him of her grandfather’s abuse of her. She and her brother had been brought by her mother to live with her grandfather and his wife after her father had died.

According to reports, the child said her grandfather beat her daily because he believed her to be a “witch” and responsible for her father’s death. Her grandfather and his wife also burned her in various places all over her body. Her grandfather and his wife were arrested. Leo Igwe, founder of the Advocacy for Alleged Witches (AFAW) wrote an article for Sahara Reporters that gave a fuller account and detailed the “witch” accusations.

The elderly are also frequent targets for accusations of practicing “witchcraft” like in this report of a young man from Limpopo, South Africa who strangled his grandmother because he believed she had “bewitched” him.

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The efforts of groups like WHRIN, AFAW, and other affiliated groups and organizations are essential to providing not just community leaders, but government officials and administrators with the tools necessary to help educate citizens and increase their understanding about public health not just in developing countries, but also those nations who have immigrant populations since they often bring their beliefs with them.