Older Tanzanian women often become targets of ‘witch’ hunting

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Witch hunting is on the rise in Africa, and it mainly targets older women, especially in Tanzania, where they are routinely accused of fuelling albino killings, causing bad harvest and bringing disease. 

Tanzanian Woman - Tim Theurer
Tanzanian Woman – Credit : Tim Theurer

Witch hunts make a comeback in Africa

Africa’s elderly population is growing : people aged 60+ currently account for 5% of the population. Their number is projected to increase further still, up to 9% by 2050, according to the UN. But longer lives don’t necessarily mean happy ones, especially for women. Belief in witchcraft is still prevalent on the continent, even if governments typically don’t share in it, with the notable exception of Swaziland, which prohibits witches from flying higher than 150 metres.

The emergence of a growing African-based movement in favour of elders’ rights and care, visible in Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal, doesn’t necessarily mean that such rights are upheld in all African countries. In Ghana, Tanzania and South Africa, older women often become the targets of so-called “witch hunts”.  According to the Human Rights Centre, based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s largest city, 765 people were accused of practicing witchcraft and subsequently murdered in 2013 ; 505 were women.

‘Witch’ killings increase year after year in Tanzania despite awareness-raising campaigns

The phenomenon is one of the consequences of a crackdown on witchdoctors, banned by the government in January in an attempt to put an end to albino killings and the use of their body parts in good luck potions. Older women are frequently taken for witches, especially if they have red eyes, a trait caused by cooking in small rooms with little to no ventilation.

“Witches” are frequently blamed for common misfortunes (death, disease, poor harvest…) and punished for their supposed crimes, with attackers often sneaking into their homes in the middle of the night.  Older women are frequently beaten, chased from their homes, or even buried alive, stoned or burned to death, while their families remain unharmed.

These killings of innocent older women have been increasing from year to year despite various awareness campaigns, law enforcement organs must take serious efforts to stop them,Legal and Human Rights Centre executive directive Hellen-Kijo Bisimba declared to theconversation.com.

Tanzanian expert on African witchcraft Simeon Mesaki reported that attackers frequently believe that murder is the only way to efficiently deal with witchcraft. They also have little access to justice, which is why they seek to exert it themselves.


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