2 Jun 2014 - by A4ID

Protection against accusations of witchcraft

When Nyamizi’s husband died she was accused of witchcraft and forced from her home. Our legal partners have worked with HelpAge International to recommend legal protections for vulnerable people.

The background

Nyamizi Bundala is 73 years old. A few years ago, after her husband passed away, Nyamizi was accused of using witchcraft to kill a neighbour’s child who had died from disease. A threatening letter told her to leave her village; she took it to the local court but her neighbour denied sending it and the court did nothing.

A while later, when she was returning home at night, somebody attacked Nyamizi with a machete, slashing her head and cutting off her arm. Fortunately, she recovered in hospital, but her attacker was never brought to justice. The first time Nyamizi went to court, the judge did not turn up; the second time, she was told that the case had already been heard and she had lost.

“All my efforts ended,” said Nyamizi. “I have never been back in court. There is no justice. I survive on my own ability. I didn’t get justice because I couldn’t pay for it. No-one takes action for those who are poor.”

Witchcraft and injustice

In many countries in Africa and Asia belief in witchcraft is widespread. Elderly, disabled and marginalised people are often accused of witchcraft as scapegoats for communities’ misfortunes, or are given the label as a result of envy or vendetta. Individuals are often expelled from their homes and villages and attacked physically, and a great many are killed.

Those accused of witchcraft will sometimes be tried for their ‘crimes’ in customary courts, where procedure is often unfair, judges biased and evidence shaky. Trial by ordeal is also used: elderly and vulnerable people might be forced to eat harmful substances, for example, and their innocence then judged based on their body’s reaction.

The persecution of alleged witches is reinforced in many countries by anti-witchcraft legislation. Although in some countries there is legislation supposed to protect those accused of witchcraft, this is rarely enforced because of culturally entrenched beliefs about the existence of witchcraft and how to deal with it.

An NGO with a mission, and three dedicated lawyers

HelpAge International works to improve the treatment of elderly and vulnerable people in countries all over the world. Taken aback by the situation of those accused of witchcraft, HelpAge sought legal assistance, hoping to find out how to use the existing law to better protect those accused of witchcraft, and to find out what improvements to the law their organisation could recommend and lobby for.

A4ID partnered HelpAge with a small group of lawyers from firms in Canada, France and the UK. Together the group reviewed the witchcraft legislation of various developing countries and researched whether it was being put into effect, as well as finding out about communities’ attitudes towards witchcraft.

Bridget Sleap from HelpAge International said, “The interest and enthusiasm of the lawyers involved has meant that what started out as a relatively short piece of work has grown into something much more comprehensive than we had anticipated and we really appreciate their time, professionalism and dedication.”

Encouraging changes

The legal partners made a detailed report to HelpAge. The report showed that the organisation should focus on encouraging the repeal and fighting the introduction of anti-witchcraft legislation in particular countries.

The lawyers highlighted the urgency of bringing witchcraft cases out of customary courts and ending trial by ordeal in the countries where this is ongoing. They underlined the need to improve awareness of the laws which protect people accused of witchcraft, so that they can be used to bring and judge cases. By encouraging these changes, HelpAge can see that those accused of witchcraft are protected using the rule of law.

Intervention and mediation

The legal partners concluded that where the law is still being under-enforced due to cultural convictions about witchcraft, the best way to prevent persecution is through community based interventions and mediation, working directly with the people making the accusations and those accused. This advice has provided the main focus for HelpAge’s immediate work against witchcraft-related mistreatment.

After the intervention of A4ID and HelpAge Nyamizi said:

“Things are changing now and changing fast, there are not so many threatening letters these days. There is awareness of legal rights now. “