Magazine article The Christian Century

Witchcraft and Human Rights

Magazine article The Christian Century

Witchcraft and Human Rights

Article excerpt

Concepts of human rights have changed much in recent years, and churches have sometimes struggled to keep pace. In one particular area, however, they are uniquely placed to make a critical contribution: fighting persecution for witchcraft.

At first glance, it seems shocking to apply the concept of human rights to an idea as self-evidently primitive as witchcraft. Yet across Africa, Asia, and Oceania, antiwitchcraft movements and militias flourish, and the media offer daily reports of supposed witches being lynched or attacked. An additional related form of violence involves the murder and mutilation of albino people, who are targeted for occult purposes and whose body parts are much sought for ritual purposes.

Responding to these horrors are a number of private organizations, including Under the Same Sun, which campaigns for albinos, and the Witchcraft and Human Rights Information Network. Framing the problem as one of human rights encourages concerted international action.

In just the past year, the United Nations has become directly involved. In September the UN's Human Rights Council hosted the first ever Expert Workshop on Witchcraft and Human Rights, a historic event in the effort to put witchcraft-related abuses on the human rights agenda and signal that governments will be held to account for how they respond to incidents. An excellent start would be a much wider use of laws that severely punish those who accuse people of witchcraft.

Another milestone in understanding the mentalities underlying contemporary witchcraft controversies is the stunning film I Am Not a Witch, by the Zambian Welsh director Rungano Nyoni, which focuses on the plight of a nine-year-old girl identified as a malevolent sorcerer. The film follows the girl through one of the witch camps that are an ugly reality of contemporary Africa; the camps provide homes for outcasts of all ages. The newly defined witch-child acquires the name Shula, "the uprooted," as she becomes a cross between a feared monster and a prize pet. At every stage, the bizarre life into which Shula has entered recalls ancient myths and fairy tales. But every aspect of the story is taken from current headlines. So also are the signs and tokens by which people identify witches, including signs witnessed only in dreams. …

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