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Where Witch Hunts Are Not A Metaphor — And Women Are Still Getting Killed

Catalonia has recently pardoned up to 1,000 people, mostly women, who were accused of "witchcraft" as late as the eighteenth century. But as some countries atone for their past, "witch hunts" are still common in other parts of the world.

Where Witch Hunts Are Not A Metaphor — And Women Are Still Getting Killed

Ghana's "witch camps" are home to hundreds of women, all alleged witches

Laure Gautherin

The Catalan Parliament has recently passed a resolution to apologize for the centuries-long witch hunt that took place in the region over 400 years ago, clearing the name of some 1,000 innocents — mostly women — condemned for witchcraft. Catalonia was one of the most active regions in Europe for witch hunting. Europe’s oldest law against the crime of witchcraft was passed in Lleida, a city in the north-west of Spain, back in 1424. Witch hunts lasted in the region up to the eighteenth century.

Investigations into this dark period led to the recovery of more than 700 names of women who were "prosecuted, tortured and executed by force," explains Spanish daily La Rázon. Often, the accused were only women with medical knowledge or traditional healing methods, or even widows and others known for non-conforming behavior.

Reported on by neighbors, members of the community or even their own families, they were judged and murdered with societal approval. Today, these crimes are considered as femicides and the Spanish region wants to make amends.

Repenting for history

Catalonia’s resolution follows the call by 150 history professors who authored the manifesto and atlas of Catalan witch hunt victims “No eren bruixes, eren dones” (“They were not witches, they were women”) published in the local history journal Sapiens. They go further than asking for a pardon — they want Catalan children to be taught about their province’s femicidal history.

Very similar campaigns have been held across Europe, where about 50,000 people were condemned to death for witchcraft between 1580 and 1630. The Catalan initiative was inspired by the movement Witches of Scotland. For two years, the group has fought for pardons and official apologies for the estimated 3,837 people — 84% of whom were women — tried as witches, two-thirds of whom were executed and burned.

Mob lynchings still happen on a regular basis

The campaign gained the support of Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, and the Scottish Parliament approved the bill last December, three centuries after the Witchcraft Act was repealed. A memorial to those killed in the witch hunts was inaugurated on the isles of Orkney in 2019. It reads: “They wur cheust folk” (“They were just folk”).

Similarly, Norway opened the Steilneset Memorial in Vardø in 2011. Designed by artist Louise Bourgeois and architect Peter Zumthor, the massive monument honors the 91 people tried for witchcraft and executed in 1621. And in Germany, 69 cities and town councils have exonerated the victims of witchcraft trials and several memorials were erected in their names.

A memorial to the victims of witch hunts in Vardø, Norway

Astrid Westvang

Widows most at risk

But as Europe and U.S. (which went through its own witch hunt in the seventeenth century) reflect on their past to better understand their present, murders motivated by suspicions of witchcraft are still being committed in other countries. The phenomenon is so wide-spread that in July 2021, the Human Rights Council of the United Nations adopted the charter for the “Elimination of harmful practices related to accusations of witchcraft and ritual attacks” and ordered a report.

An earlier report from the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs had identified 41 African and Asian countries where witchcraft accusations were used to justify extreme violence. Older women, and especially older widows, were the most at risk. Despite actions by international community, local governments and NGOs, mob lynchings still happen on a regular basis. Viruses such as COVID-19 and Ebola have driven up “witch hunts,” but these are just one aggravating factor. Other contributors include superstitions, miseducation or even jealousy and the need to find a tangible culprit when an uncontrollable problem arises.

The real work must focus on educating people
In the Indian State of Jharkhand only, authorities’ figures show that at least 1,000 people — 90% of them women — were murdered for being “witches” in last 22 years. Today, police in the region record up to three “witch hunt” cases per day, from harassment to physical violence and murder. Thousands of miles from there in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Association of Women in the Media NGO recorded 324 accusations of witchcraft in South Kivu province between June and September 2021.

A monument to Maggie Wall, who was burnt for supposedly being witch in 1657 in Scotland

Neil Williamson

The witch camp dilemma 

In 2020, the brutal murder of 90-year-old Akua Denteh in Ghana's East Gonja District sparked outrage beyond the country’s borders. Accused of being responsible for the irregular rainfall at Kafaba, her lynching was ordered by a self-proclaimed witch-hunter and priestess. Though many citizens called upon authorities to bring justice to the victim, many of her peers were also present when she was beaten to death.

“It is not only in our villages and very rural parts that we see played out in everyday life this belief in witchcraft and labeling of old women as witches,” writes Elizabeth Akua Ohene in Graphic Online. “More than half the class of our brightest young people, medical students, say they believe in witchcraft. Priests believe in witchcraft, policemen believe in witchcraft, teachers believe in witchcraft, journalists believe in witchcraft, every time anyone is going through a difficult phase, witches are the reason.”

This popular and deep-rooted belief explains the existence of Ghana's “witch camps” across the country. Described as “safe-havens” rather than penal colonies, they are home to hundreds of women, all alleged witches, who were either banished or came voluntarily. Whatever the way they enter, their number grows every month. Very few dare to leave for fear of being lynched or because they receive pressure from camps’ keepers.

The dismantling of these camps represents a real dilemma for human rights activists: would it help these women or just take away the only alternative to death they can be offered? The question itself shows that the real work must focus on educating people so that accusations of witchcraft become a thing of the past.

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