Johannesburg — On Friday last week, my colleagues and I had a heated debate in the office about whether witchcraft exists or does not. This came - in the wake of a newspaper report in one of the dailies about witchcraft in Mpumalanga Province in South Africa. The community blamed witchcraft for the high rates of unemployment.
I asked a colleague from Malawi, reputedly the hub of witchcraft in Southern Africa (blame it on oral tradition, I have heard it!), if this exists. Without hesitation he said that witchcraft existed and that if I go to Malawi, he will take me to a few people who can even fly me in the witches 'plane', the winnowing basket.
We all seemed to have heard scary stories, scarier than all the Harry Potter films ever produced. We undoubtedly agreed that witchcraft exists, though I finally asked, why we are not rich if these things exist. We could easily break into banks and loot all the cash and not bother to even wake up and go to the office!
In the midst of the discussions, I remembered one fateful night at a Catholic School I went to in a remote area in Zimbabwe. It so happened that one young woman, whom I'll call Miriam*, close to writing her final examinations became possessed and in a trance said that there were small boys in the box room (where we kept our trunks). A fellow student, clad in her rosary to protect her from the evils of this world, went to the box room to check but she did not see the small boys. Miriam said that another student, Martha*, had brought the small boys to school.
The things that Miriam claimed to be seeing could not be seen by anybody else. Her condition became worse and at times, she would want to beat up fellow students. She would not sleep but kept talking throughout the night. She had to be taken to the annex and when her condition did not improve, the school authorities called her parents to come and fetch her.
Miriam went away for about three weeks. We were all scared and did not want to fall victims of Martha's witchcraft. We smiled at her even if we did not have any reason to. When Miriam came back, she confided in her close friends that a sangoma had confirmed that Martha had bewitched her. A jealous Martha did not want an intelligent Miriam to sit for her final examination!
We were between 16 and 18 years old.
My childhood experience came back to me last week when I read the findings of the Gender Based Violence Limpopo research, a neighbouring South African province. The study found out that 77% of women in this province have experienced some form of violence at least once in their lifetime both within and outside their intimate relationships.
First hand accounts collected in the province to understand the causes of such high levels of GBV show that women in the province suffer from GBV related to witch hunting. This occurs when communities blame deaths, or sicknesses or other misfortunes in their community on witchcraft.
Women constitute the vast majority of those accused of witchcraft in the Limpopo province. This demonstrates that witchcraft has become an epidemic in our societies.
Further, gender is a central issue in witch-hunting. Ally (2009) explains that "women who assume power positions, either financially or through a role that provides power, are more vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft from women and men." In addition, men accuse their spouses of witchcraft as a way of controlling them, assert their power and exclude women from social circles.
Imagine one Kgotlelelo Khune* from Limpopo province who shared her personal account of being accused of witchcraft.
Khune said that her husband demanded that she be naked when cooking for him. "He would call the children to come and watch a naked witch cooking in the kitchen. At times he would refuse to eat the food saying that he cannot eat food that has been cooked by a witch. I was hurt. I became isolated and felt humiliated. I knew I had to leave my husband, as I did not know what else was going to happen to me. My own kids started treating me badly", she added.
Unfortunately, witchcraft accusations result in physical abuse and emotional trauma. Women suspected of witchcraft are often excommunicated, their property and houses burnt and their children are taken away from them.
Witch hunting is also a form of GBV where women level accusations against each other often out of jealous. The women who accuse other women are often gatekeepers of patriarchy and they even join men in executing mob justice. Retrogressive attitudes by women that men are superior in society often fuel women to women abuse.
It is high time that governments and traditional leaders intervene and begin dialogue on witchcraft accusations. There are underlying stereotypes and assumptions that remain unchallenged under tradition, custom and religion that exacerbate GBV because of witchcraft accusations. This face of GBV cannot be left to chance, as women are more vulnerable to witch accusations.
The whole debate of trying to understand that which cannot be scientifically proven would be funny if it were not in fact a case of life and death for many women.
*Not her real name.
Saeanna Chingamuka is the Gender Links Editor. This article is part of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service series for the 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence.