“Witch-Hunts” on the Rise in Rural India
by Amelia Thomson-DeVeauxJanuary 11, 201112:35 am
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It’s hard to believe, but “witch hunts” seem to be alive and well in the twenty-first century, despite the fact that they belong, in most people’s minds, in history textbooks. These witch hunts are not happening in Salem, Massachusetts, though; they’re in rural India, where a shaman was recently arrested for forcing women to drink poison in a “witchcraft test.” All of the women in the village of Shivni in the central Chhattisgarh state were forced to drink a toxic concoction after a young woman fell ill. Of the 30 women who were initially hospitalized, five remain, and one 70-year-old woman is in a serious condition.
Stories of women beaten, poisoned, paraded naked or forced to eat human excrement are disturbingly common in parts of India. Sometimes these witch hunts deliberately target widows or women with property in an attempt to take advantage of them, but other times they’re rooted in religious beliefs.
“Witch hunts are most common among poor rural communities with little access to education and health services, and longstanding beliefs in witchcraft,” explained Rebecca Vernon, an editor at the Cornell International Law Journal. “When an individual gets sick or harm befalls the community, the blame falls not upon a virus or crop disease, but upon an alleged witch.”
Others have said that as women gain power in these communities, witchcraft is invoked as a way of keeping women in subservient roles. Women are also the victims of witchcraft accusations after refusing sexual advances from village men.
But other times, these women are simply scapegoats. “Poor, low-caste women are easy targets for naming/branding (as a witch),” said Kanchan Mathur, a professor at The Insititute of Development Studies in India. “Women who are widowed, infertile, possess ‘ugly’ features or are old, unprotected, poor or socially ostracized are easy targets.”
In the period from 2004-2009, it’s estimated that 137 women were killed as a result of witchcraft-related violence, although these numbers may of course be much higher. The main issue is that there are few legal protections for women who have been accused of witchcraft.
According to Cornell Law School’s report, “Those who are accused of committing the violent act itself against a “witch” are usually sentenced to no more than one year. Those accused of murder often get reduced judgments or overturned sentences, as India’s current court system cannot adequately handle fair jurisprudence in cases involving superstition and witchcraft.”
The answer clearly seems to be for the Indian government to strengthen their laws against witchcraft-related violence and to begin enforcing them. But for now, we can only hope that the women who were recently hospitalized will survive, and that they can escape the stigma that witchcraft accusations seem inevitably to carry.