Sorcery killings shock Papua New Guinea’s Gulf Province

Clifford Faik
Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea
Sorcery killings shock Papua New Guinea’s Gulf Province Posters at the police station in the town of Wabag, Papua New Guinea, warn against harming people suspected of witchcraft, and domestic violence, Nov. 20, 2018.
Peter Parks/AFP

Recent murders provoked by sorcery accusations in a coastal province of Papua New Guinea show that the predominantly gender-based violence is not only a problem in the country’s highlands, a police chief said.

A 28-year-old man was killed in the remote Kaintiba sub-district of Gulf Province in early December and his wife was severely injured. A 70-year-old woman was murdered in the same area in October. 

In both incidents, the victims had been accused of using supernatural powers to cause deaths, said Gulf Province police commander Jeffery Lemb.

“I'm particularly concerned on the number of sorcery related killings rising steadily in the Gulf Province. It's never heard of in the past here,” he told BenarNews in a Dec. 14 interview.

Papua New Guinea does not have comprehensive data on murder and other violence such as torture linked to sorcery accusations. Sorcery-related violence in the country’s highlands is frequently reported on by the country’s media and the victims are mainly female. 

Accusations of sorcery made by glasman and glasmeri – respectively male and female “diviners” – who are consulted after unexpected deaths, often lead to violence, according to a multi-year study released in 2021 by Papua New Guinea’s National Research Institute. 

UN News, the news service of the United Nations, said in April that there are an average of 388 cases of sorcery accusation-related violence every year across four highlands provinces in Papua New Guinea, based on media reports. 

The true number of victims is likely far higher because of the climate of retaliation against people who report such violence or defend women accused of sorcery, it said.

Lemb said the 70-year-old woman’s attacker slashed her face and neck with a machete after she was accused of using sorcery to eat the heart of a four-year-old boy. The boy had died the day before after complaining of a stomach ache. The woman’s attacker is in police custody.

The man killed earlier this month following an accusation of sorcery was also attacked with a machete. His wife, also accused of sorcery, was hospitalized with wounds to her head and back and their house was set on fire. The alleged attacker has eluded arrest. 

Lemb said news reports about sorcery killings in highlands provinces may have influenced people in other areas. 

“There has to be strong advocacy against sorcery-related murders,” he said. “They need to be taught that it is hard to put up [a] defense in court for sorcery. More awareness needs to be done in the districts, especially in the remote areas where police presence is minimal.” 

The killings reflect a breakdown of cultural values in some communities, said Erika Tovar, communications manager for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Papua New Guinea. 

“After all, cultural values call for respect for old people, women and children. And the killing of the old woman shows that cultural values have dropped,” she said.

Allan Bird, a member of Papua New Guinea’s parliament, said a proposed law he introduced in February this year would criminalize sorcery accusations by glasman and glasmeri.

“We have the Sorcery Act 2013 but this new Bill will make it much tougher,” he said.


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