Shocking truth of witchcraft and human rights – can we put a stop to it?
More than 400 years ago 12 women were accused of witchcraft and hanged in Lancaster.
Today, unbelievably, not much has changed, say researchers who staged an international conference at Lancaster University last week.
Horrific human rights abuses linked to beliefs in witchcraft abound across the world and the cases, which do not respect any geographical boundaries, are widely believed to be increasing in scale.
There were 1,630 recorded cases of abuse and harmful practices linked to witchcraft in the UK in 2017-2018, up from 1,460 in 2016 (https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/characteristics-of-children-in-need-2017-to-2018). Of these cases, the highest concentration was in Lancashire.
The aim of the ‘Witchcraft and Human Rights: Past, Present, Future’ conference is to further highlight the grave human rights abuses taking place around the world due to beliefs in witchcraft.
Shockingly, these have included ritual killings and muti-murders of people with albinism in Africa and women being set on fire after being accused of sorcery in Papua New Guinea.
Women, children, the elderly, and people with disabilities, including people with albinism, are particularly vulnerable. Despite the seriousness of these human rights abuses, there is often no robust state-led response.
In numerous countries, witchcraft-related beliefs, which amount to some of the most challenging human rights issues of the 21st century, have resulted in serious violations of human rights including, beatings, banishment, the cutting of body parts, and amputation of limbs, torture and murder.
Lancaster University academic Dr Charlotte Baker, who has published widely on albinism in Africa and Lancaster University honorary graduate and human rights advocate Gary Foxcroft have worked with UN Independent Expert on Albinism Ikponwosa Ero to bring the conference together.
The event builds on a previous conference and workshops at the United Nations in Geneva, which put the plight of people with albinism on the UN agenda for the first time.
“There is an urgent need to draw upon a number of disciplines and cross-regional perspectives to develop a common language and understanding of the issues and to identify preventative strategies at national and international levels,” explains Dr Baker.
“Our main goal is to work towards mainstreaming the issue into the UN system and ultimately to put a stop to these harmful practices.”
This international conference formed a core component of wider work being carried out by UN bodies, academics and activists highlighting the scale of human rights abuses involving harmful practices related to certain beliefs in witchcraft.
The two-day event provided further impetus and practical guidance to numerous international, regional and national mechanisms, academics and civil society actors who have been working to raise awareness and understanding of these challenging issues.
Keynote speakers included:
· Ms Ikponwosa Ero, the United Nations first-ever Independent Expert on Albinism, who has more than a decade of experience in the research, policy development, and practice of human rights concerning persons with albinism
· Dr Fiona Hukula, a Senior Research Fellow and Building Safer Communities Programme Leader at National Research Institute, Papua New Guinea, who has authored publications relating to crime, urban issues and gender violence in PNG.
· Professor Ronald Hutton, Professor of History, University of Bristol, a leading authority on history of the British Isles in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, on ancient and medieval paganism and magic, and on the global context of witchcraft beliefs.
The conference is accompanied by a moving and powerful photographic exhibition, funded by Lancaster University, at the Peter Scott Gallery on campus, which runs until January 17.
‘From Horror to Hope’ features poignant images captured by four of the world’s most well-respected photographers working in the field of Human Rights with images gathered by the NGO ‘Under the Same Sun’. It was launched at the UN Human Rights Council headquarters in Geneva in September 2018 and is now travelling between venues internationally.
Speaking about the exhibition Dr Baker said: “The photographic exhibition brings together the work of some of the world’s leading photographers to highlight the consequences of the harmful beliefs associated with beliefs in witchcraft. We are working to draw attention to this important human rights issue that has, by and large, slipped under the radar of governments, NGOs and academics.”
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