Posted by: sbbunce | September 24, 2009

Crafting Witches (and other trends in gender-based violence)

When Roald Dahl explains to his young readers in his now classic The Witches (1983), ‘A witch is always a woman’, he describes the most consistent attribute of the witch archetype since the inception of the witch real or imagined in human society and culture: her femininity. Culture and society has understood the witch consistently as a woman while women of power, particularly of a power considered supernatural or not natural to social norms, are identified as ‘witches’. – Maureen Anderson (2007)

A recent UNHCR paper, Witchcraft Allegations, Refugee Protectionmujeres and Human Rights: A Review of the Evidence, elucidates two clear trends in accusations of witchcraft – one is that women, particularly those whose social status is seen as unorthodox or a challenge to gender norms, are a target group. Second, accusers often seek financial gain via the ostracism or killing of so-called ‘witches’ and seizure of their land or personal property.

Education is central to encourage the kind of critical thinking that serves to excavate the more insidious forces of gender discrimination and (particularly economic) self-interest that fuel many mass-atrocities.

Viricide, which applies to the organized mass murder of men, tends to have a very overt purpose in conflict. Both the mass killing of men in Pol Pot’s Cambodia and the Srebrenica massacre of Bosniak men and boys in 1995 were methods of eliminating the ‘enemy’s’ fighting potential.

Femicide – the systematic killing of women – often has far more clandestine qualities, and is a more widespread occurrence linked to socially endemic discrimination against women and girls. Large-scale witchhunts are often referred to as ‘femicide’ in that women are largely targeted.

The term ‘femicide’ has been applied elsewhere. Between 1993 and 2005 (although isolated incidents still occur) the bodies of hundreds of women were found in and around the northern Mexican town of Ciudad Juárez. In most of these cases there were signs of sexual violence, abuse, torture or in some cases mutilation.

Many of the victims worked in the large-scale manufacturing plants or maquiladores, and were often abducted travelling to and from work. Evidence also suggested that many were victims of domestic violence. Links to prostitution and drug cartel violence were often cited, but contributing factors such as isolation, lack of safe and adequate transportation and work conditions, and domestic violence, went largely unaddressed.

As an indication of the gendered nature of discrimination and disempowerment, large-scale multinationals are known to research gender-specific attributes to determine which is the most ‘productive’ group. It has been suggested that a high proportion of the workers in Mexico’s maquiladores are women because companies have discovered that women generally work for less money and are also less likely to complain or unionise against unacceptable working conditions.

Moreover, the mass-scale recruitment of women challenges prescribed gender norms in which the male head of the family has historically been ‘breadwinner’. The film On the Edge: The Femicide in Ciudad Juarez, outlines how this reshuffling of gender roles was inextricably tied to an increase in violence against women. Without adequate educational tools in place, men are more likely to ‘lash out’ at their spouse’s newfound financial dependence and status as household provider, hence the brutality of the killings.

To return to matters of witchcraft, one study on accusations in Ghana found that the target group were usually ‘poor elderly women, who are single or widowed, representing alternative models to the patriarchal ideal of a woman dependent on a man’ (Truxler, 2006). The word ‘witch’, argues another scholar, can be used as a description of ‘strong, proud women wise in the ways of natural medicines’(Teish, 1985). The report also attributes an increase in violence to rapid social and economic changes within a context of low state commitment to adequate poverty-alleviation methods and community education.

The practice of witchcraft, prostitution and drug-related violence are often foregrounded in reports on the deaths of women, with their murders often superficially attributed to an association with ‘deviant’ practices. However, closer analysis holds deeper implications – witchcraft accusations and the femicide in Ciudad Juárez are emblematic cases of a global pattern in which greed and economic priorities meld with institutionalized inequality to foster mass atrocity and human rights violations.

For further reading, see:

“Witch” as metaphor in America: An interdisciplinary analysis of the linguistic shaping of women in literature
Maureen Anderson, Ph.D., Illinois State University, 2007

Witchcraft allegations, refugee protection and human rights: a review of the evidence
Jill Schnoebelen, EPAU Working Papers, 10 January 2009

On the Edge: The Femicide in Ciudad Juárez
Steve Hisse, 2006

Click here to a link to a UNHCR event on Saving Africa’s Witch Children.


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