Witchcraft and Human Rights Introduction

Pictured above: Healer and witch-hunter Malindi, Kenya (left), and woman accused of witchcraft, Tabora, Tanzania.

Violence and Witchcraft

Witchcraft-related violence is an ongoing human rights issue throughout the world. Today, witch-hunting and witchcraft-related crimes are found in more than seventy developing countries, notably on the African continent. Epidemics of violence against alleged witches—mainly women, but including elders and children of both genders—is on the increase in some parts of the world. Witchcraft beliefs may lie behind vigilante murders, political assassinations, revenge killings, and commercial murders for human body parts.

Map of Countries With Witch-Hunts from 1950-2000.
Countries marked in blue had major witch-hunts between 1950-2000 (W. Behinger, Witches and Witch Hunts, Polity, 2004). The red region shows sources of investigative literature on witchcraft during that time period (British Museum, Anthropological Index).

Violence Against Women

Middle-aged and elderly women are the primary targets of witchcraft violence worldwide, although attacks on elderly men are also commonplace. The violence includes intimidation, forced banishment, assault, wounding, attacks in their homes, and mob attacks. Much of the violence is within families, often between co-wives.

Child Abuse

Children are at times accused of witchcraft in several central African nations, often stigmatized, abused, abandoned by their parents and forced to live in the streets, usually because of abject poverty in large families.

Attacks on Elders

Both male and female elders are subject to witchcraft accusations and attack, particularly when they are unable to work while consuming food, firewood, and water provided by family members. The term “senicide” (elder killing) by accusation of witchcraft is used to explain the process during times of economic shock (drought, flooding, inflation, or lost income).

Picture of Alice Lakwena

Witchcraft Used as a Weapon of War: In Uganda, Alice Lakwena, founder of the Lord’s Resistance Army, used witch-hunting and claimed witchcraft powers to recruit an army of farmers and ex-soldiers to rise in opposition to the Ugandan government. Similar rebellions throughout Africa have been based on claimed supernatural powers.

Stimulants To Violence

catagories of violence chart
Chart detailing categories of witchcraft-linked violence.

Witchcraft beliefs lead to both spontaneous acts, such as mob violence, and opportunistic violence such as planned murders for human body parts to be sold for witchcraft protection and economic gain.

State-Sponsored Terror: Idi Amin used propaganda to suggest he could control witches, speak to spirits of the dead, and use witchcraft to defeat his enemies. In other African nations, the powers of witchcraft are used to create terror and control dissidents.

Political Intimidation

Political intimidation

Witchcraft threats are used to intimidate voters, threaten opponents, and, for some candidates, provide claims of special powers. Basic democracy evaporates when witchcraft threats are used to influence elections. Voting is no longer “secret” because individuals may believe a candidate may be able to know their vote or even foretell how they will vote. Enforced oaths or promises may be extracted by candidates under the threat of witchcraft violence. Several elections in Kenya have been nullified by the courts on the basis of undue threats of witchcraft.

Extortion and Witchcraft

Religious exploitation:  Evangelical and born-again “breakaway” churches (from mainline denominations) use witch-hunting, exorcism, and forced conversion to their sects in order to build memberships and force new converts to pay fees to support the church.

Extortion in Traditional Healing

Extortion in traditional healing

“You are bewitched” is a common diagnosis from some traditional healers, often used when an unexplained illness or tragic event has befallen a patient. Fees are charged for witchcraft protection medicines and for the naming of a person who may be bewitching a patient, an illegal act in most nations.

Illegal Trade of Witchcraft Drugs and Poisons:  There exists long distance trade and smuggling of illegal drugs and market products used in witchcraft-based violence, including assassinations as witchcraft acts. This map shows major smuggling routes for illegal poisons, herbal medicines, amulets, and other banned products used to practice witchcraft, as reported by former inspector Gilbert Olonana, Moshi, Tanzania. (Map by P. Allen)

Encounters with Witchcraft

Miller has done extensive research on African witchcraft as a human rights topic. His fascination with witchcraft began with a trek across East Africa and the Congo in the early 1960s. Over the next four decades during the author’s long residence in and many trips to Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, he did field research, learning from villagers what it was like to live with witches, and how witches were seen through African eyes.

Cover of Encounters with Witchcraft (Miller, 2012)
Encounters With Witchcraft, Cover

His work culminated in a book “Encounters with Witchcraft: Field Notes From Africa” published in 2012.
A companion teacher’s guide is available that links with the Core Curriculum for grades 9-12.

Professor Miller continues to advocate for education and human rights surrounding this issue.