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Witch Branding in Africa: A Devastating Impact on the Lives of Elderly Women

By Peace Oladipo

One day in October 2020, Serah Akpan, 70, was seated in her house at Boki Local Government in Cross River, southern Nigeria, when she heard the murmurings of irate youth outside. Before she could grasp what was really happening, they had broken into her house, bundled her outside, and threatened to kill her for allegedly being a witch.

“They started cutting me with a cutlass. I was bleeding and crying, but no one cared at that point. They cut my leg so deep that, even now, I cannot walk by myself,” she said.

Moments later, she was among a group of nine individuals who were accused of witchcraft and cast into a ferocious inferno, meant to end their lives in a horrifying manner.

While she and two others survived after being rescued by good samaritans and hospitalised, the others were burned beyond recognition. Now, she finds life difficult, as she was badly injured, is no longer able to walk, and is dependent on her children.

Witch hunting thrives in Africa

Witch hunting is a serious problem across Africa. In Nigeria, severe acts of violence and abuse targeting elderly women due to accusations of witchcraft are prevalent, particularly in the southern region, where an intensified version of Christianity has been merged with native beliefs.

Elderly or disabled women who are labelled as witches are often subjected to banishment and isolation. In many instances, they are also at risk of facing lynching or enduring other horrifying forms of brutality.

This disturbing trend gained momentum in the 1990s across the region, partly influenced by popular films and opportunistic self-proclaimed prophets capitalising on people’s fears and spiritual mindsets for financial gain.

This remains an obstacle to realising the objectives laid out in the United Nations’ General Assembly’s Declaration on the Eradication of Violence Against Women, which was signed in December 1993.

The problem stems from violence against women, which is rampant in Africa and Nigeria, such that the UN in 2020 described it as a “pandemic within a pandemic.” From 2020 to 2022, 7,349 cases of gender-based violence were reported in the country.

The government turns a blind eye

Before leaving power in 2017, Yahya Jammeh the former president of Gambia, during his 22 years of ruling the country, branded several women as witches; they then experienced physical torture as a result of the accusation.

In September 2022, the Nigerian police stormed a seminar venue on “witch persecution” in Benue State, Nigeria, and chased away participants.

Experts argue that most governments on the continent are even part of the problem.

“The state is weak. When we take this issue to the police, they don’t pick up our calls because they think we are disturbing them. It is not a priority for the state. Because of their quest for votes and popularity, the government won’t want to go against popular beliefs,” argues Dr. Leo Igwe, the founder of Advocacy for Alleged Witches.

Similarly, other governments in Africa have been unable to stop this gender-based violence in the form of witch branding in their countries. This is one of several reasons why achieving the Sustainable Development Goal on gender equality by 2030 appears uncertain in Africa.

According to Roslyn Mould, a humanist and human rights advocate in Ghana, “Witchcraft branding stems from the misuse of cultural beliefs and has become very detrimental to the most vulnerable, which includes elderly women in society.”

“Ghana is one of the countries in Africa that has witch camps created for people who have been banished from their community. It is detrimental to us internationally, especially when it comes to how we treat our women and mothers. This practice denies women their rights.

She stressed that the key solution isn’t closing the camps but ending the accusations. “Government officials sympathise but lack on-ground research or NGO collaboration. To make a difference, teaming up with traditional leaders is crucial. Even when found not guilty, grapple with persistent societal stigma. Their basic rights, like freedom, healthcare, and proper nutrition, are frequently compromised. It’s worth noting that nearly all accusations, approximately 99 percent, are targeted at women, making this a pressing women’s rights issue, with a majority of the accusations coming from me,” Roslyn added.

Hope Glitters in the Dark

In Malawi, witchcraft killings are still on the rise. The Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation reports that since 2019, mobs have unlawfully killed at least 75 individuals suspected of engaging in witchcraft in the country.

While Section 210 of Nigeria’s Criminal Code Act prescribes a two-year prison sentence for accusing someone of witchcraft or participating in related activities like making, selling, or using charms and engaging in unlawful practices, the actual enforcement of this law has been inconsistent.

But Ghana is taking a step forward to counter the problem, despite the odds. In 2022, following the lynching of a 90-year-old woman in July 2020, the Ghanaian parliament passed a bill that criminalized the practice of witchcraft accusations. The bill prohibits the declaration, accusation, or labelling of another person as a witch.

IPS UN Bureau Report

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