Femicides and "Honour" Killings

last updated March 2015


In partnership with UN Women, The Advocates for Human Rights created the following sections for UN Women's Virtual Knowledge Centre to End Violence against Women and Girls. This section, along with sections addressing other forms of violence against women and girls, may be found under Legislation at www.endvawnow.org.

Femicides and “Honour” Killings

Drafters should recognize that murder is another form of widow maltreatment and should criminalize it accordingly. For example, legislation should prohibit and punish witch hunting, an offense often directed at widows. Witch hunting involves the accusation of individuals, often elderly women, of practicing witchcraft when others fall ill or die. Witchcraft, however, may often be a pretense for the perpetrators’ personal gain. Such perpetrators use vigilante violence to torture and kill so-called “witches,” thus removing these women from the line of inheritance, or from the home or land. Legislation should impose penalties for these murders that are commensurate with other first-degree murders.

Legislation should list aggravating factors that increase the sentence, such as committing murder for financial gain, committing murder as witch hunting, vulnerability of the victim due to old age or widow status, the murder was carried out in a particularly heinous way that inflicted torture or serious physical abuse to the victim, the murder was committed after substantial planning or premeditation, and a prior criminal history of the perpetrator.

Drafters should create a separate criminal offense of “honour” crimes and “honour” killings. Drafters should ensure that crimes of “honour” are non-compoundable offenses: they should be prosecuted regardless of whether the victim or her family have withdrawn the complaint or whether the parties have reached a private settlement. Penalties for “honour” crimes and killings should be reflective of the seriousness of the crime and commensurate with other similar offenses. (See: sub-section on Sentencing Provisions in Section on “Honour” Crimes)

Case Study: Papua New Guinea

Persecution of women believed to be witches is a problem in many countries around the globe. In Papua New Guinea, after a spate of murders of women accused of witchcraft in 2013, the government embarked on a process of legislative review. Specifically, the government announced plans to repeal the country’s Sorcery Act, which had provided for a reduced sentence if a killer alleged the victim was involved in witchcraft. The repeal would ensure that any killing linked to allegations of sorcery would be treated as murder under the law. The action followed the burning alive of one young woman accused of witchcraft, the kidnapping and torture of a mother and her daughters, the torture of six young women and the murder of one other in an Easter sacrifice, and the public beheading of an elderly woman accused of black magic.

Changes in the law are an important first step, however, beliefs about witchcraft are deeply rooted and long-term public education will likely be necessary to change attitudes. Moreover, in many isolated island communities, it is very challenging for authorities to intervene and stop attacks on women. In one incident, after international calls for authorities to rescue women being held and tortured as witches, the police claimed they could not assist because they were unarmed and were too few to confront the mob holding the women. Finally, one of the proposed legal remedies, in addition to repealing the Sorcery Act, is to reintroduce the death penalty as a punishment for murder.  Papua New Guinea has been a de facto abolitionist state for many decades, not having carried out any execution since the 1950s. The situation in Papua New Guinea reflects the political conflicts that many women’s rights advocates confront when advocating for enhanced criminal penalties for perpetrators of violence against women. As in this case, calls to enhance women’s safety may be appropriated for a broader law and order agenda that does not reflect other human rights principles, such as abolition of capital punishment.

See: Sorcery law repeal in PNG after witch burnings, Sky News, May 1, 2013; Jonathan Pearlman, Papua New Guinea urged to halt witchcraft violence after latest “sorcery” case, The Telegraph, April 11, 2013; Matt Siegel, Papua New Guinea considers repealing sorcery law, The New York Times, April 12, 2013.