Witch Burning & Beheading

last updated June 2010

What Is Witch-Hunting?
Witch-hunting and burning is a practice that has been going on in many parts of the world for centuries. People in such communities often attribute unexplained illnesses and deaths to sorcery, and evidence shows that women are disproportionately suspected and accused of the practice.
UNESCAP (n.d.) has reported that in Nepal, elderly women and women who belong to the lower social classes have been disproportionately accused of being witches and suffered violence as a result. In some Pacific Island countries, particularly in Melanesian society, older women are believed to gain power as they age, and witch hunting is thought to be a way of restricting this power. In Pacific Island countries which have laws prohibiting witchcraft, laws are often selectively enforced against women. In Papua New Guinea, researchers have found that women are six times more likely than men to be accused of sorcery. 
Prevalence of Witch Hunting
In many African countries, the belief in witchcraft remains strong. In 2009, the International Humanist and Ethical Union came before the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights and reported (a) government-sanctioned witch hunts in the Gambia which resulted in the torture and killing of hundreds of people who were accused of witchcraft; (b) conviction and sentencing of two people in Malawi to 5 years of imprisonment for murder through magic; (c) killing of 15 women suspected of witchcraft in Kenya; (d) the expulsion from the home of children suspected of participating in witchcraft; and (e) the abandonment, lynching, and beating of children suspected of being witches in the Cross River and Akwa Ibom states of Nigeria. In addition to punishment such as rape, broken bones, and hanging over fire, Amnesty International has reported that victims have been beheaded, buried alive, drowned, electrocuted, or shot.

Amnesty International. (2011). Papua New Guinea: Violence against women, sorcery-related killings and forced evictions. Amnesty International submission to the UN Universal Periodic Review, May 2011.

International Humanist and Ethical Union. (2009). Witchhunts and human rights abuses in AfricaStatement presented at the 46th session of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights in Banjul, the Gambia.
Jalal, I. (2009). "Harmful practices against women in Pacific Island Countries: Customary and conventional laws." Expert paper written for the United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women.
United Nations ESCAP. (n.d.). "Harmful traditional practices in three countries of South Asia: Culture, human rights, and violence against women." Gender and Development Discussion Paper Series No. 21.