Academic journal article The George Washington International Law Review

Witchcraft Accusations and Human Rights: Case Studies from Malawi

Academic journal article The George Washington International Law Review

Witchcraft Accusations and Human Rights: Case Studies from Malawi

Article excerpt


In Africa, victims of witchcraft accusations, who are most commonly children and older women, face banishment from their communities, loss of property, arrest, imprisonment, and physical violence.1 Even if steps are taken to "cure" the individual, the label of witch may follow an individual throughout her entire life.2 Those accused of witchcraft may flee their home areas to escape anticipated harm or may be forced from their villages by the community. "Witch camps" and "witch sanctuaries" have been created in Ghana and South Africa to shelter accused witches.3 When a community forces an accused witch to flee her home, she often suffers other consequences including psychological trauma and impoverishment due to loss of property and assets.4

People who suspect they are the victims of witchcraft may make an accusation on their own or may seek the services of a witch doctor to divine the identity of the witch who has harmed them.5 Community members may also hire witch doctors to break the spell of bewitchment over children, sometimes through the use of poisonous substances or "operations" to remove the source of the bewitchment.6 Accusers often demand that a witch undergo an exorcism, or some other procedure designed to purge her of her powers (or in the case of children, designed to break the spell of bewitchment cast over them). Exorcisms can be painful and dangerous. 7 Communities may also exact punishment on the accused witch including beatings, mob violence, property destruction, or other extreme measures.8 In countries where witchcraft is criminalized, witches are often fined or imprisoned.9

This Article explores potential community-based interventions to assist victims of witchcraft accusations, based on forty-five case studies from an experimental mobile legal-aid clinic in Malawi, a country in southeastern Africa where witchcraft accusations are widespread and often irreparably harm those accused.10 In Malawi, the accused are mainly older women who are often blamed for bewitching young children.11 These accusations have led to mob violence and the imprisonment of nearly ninety people in 2010 alone.12

This Article was inspired by a partnership between the Walter Leitner International Human Rights Clinic (Leitner) at Fordham Law School and the Center for Human Rights Education Advice and Assistance (CHREAA), a paralegal agency and human rights non-governmental organization based in Malawi. In November 2010, Leitner and CHREAA ran an experimental one-week mobile legal-aid clinic focusing on witchcraft cases in two rural communities in Malawi. This Article is based on forty-five case studies originating during the Leitner/CHREAA witchcraft clinic. The Leitner/CHREAA team focused on witchcraft in the mobile legalaid clinic because these complex and challenging cases comprise a large portion of CHREAA's year-round caseload and because accusations of witchcraft often result in serious human rights violations.

Mobile legal-aid clinics enable legal service providers to bring their services directly to potential clients in remote and underserved communities.13 The goal of the Leitner/CHREAA mobile clinic was to respond to the legal needs of rural villagers who regard witchcraft as a serious justice issue and often cannot afford to travel to CHREAA's urban-based legal-aid offices for assistance. The Leitner/CHREAA team received permission from traditional leaders to conduct the mobile clinic in two rural communities. The village chiefs eagerly welcomed the Leitner/CHREAA team's efforts and acknowledged with alarm the pervasiveness of witchcraft accusations in their communities. The mobile clinic marked the first time that legal services were offered in the villages. The Leitner/CHREAA team, comprised of Fordham Law School faculty, students, and alumni and CHREAA paralegals, assisted clients at the free witchcraft clinic by providing legal advice, educating clients on the status of Malawi's Witchcraft Act (Witchcraft Act), drafting cease and desist notices to witchcraft accusers, preparing written police referrals in cases involving witchcraft accusations and violence, and conducting mediation services. …

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