February 25, 2010

Witch Hunting: Not Just in History Books

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Witch hunts conjure images of 17th century Salem, The Crucible and perhaps even Monty Python. They are relics of the past and today are relegated to fiction. But for thousands of women in modern-day India, witch hunts are all too real. Over the last 15 years, an estimated 2,500 Indian women have been killed because they were “witches.” Tons more have been beaten, tortured, forced off their land and driven out of their villages. They are treated brutally: Victims may be beheaded, hacked to death, stoned, buried alive, forced to eat excrement or raped.

Witch hunts are most common among poor rural communities with little access to education and health services, and longstanding beliefs in witchcraft. When an individual gets sick or harm befalls the community, the blame falls not upon a virus or crop disease, but upon an alleged witch. These “witches” are primarily women and are often widows or other marginalized members of society. In many cases, however, claiming that a woman is a witch who has caused some harm is merely a smokescreen. In reality, the witch hunter wishes to punish the victim for a perceived transgression, such as refusing sexual advances or challenging an authority figure. In other instances, a woman (again, often a widow) owns property that someone else wants. Labeling her as a witch and killing her or driving her from the village makes her land available for the taking.

For several centuries, we have understood that punishing individuals for being “witches” is wrong. It is unfair, often politically motivated and a violation of the victims’ basic rights. The International Human Rights Clinic at Cornell Law School, in conjunction with an Indian non-profit organization, recently filed a case in Indian court alleging that witch hunting is a gross human rights violation and calling on the government to enact laws and other programs to curb the practice.

India does have laws that prohibit and punish both naming a victim a witch and the violent acts that accompany witch hunts. However, these laws provide paltry punishments: Anyone who causes a woman physical or mental torture by naming her as a witch can only be imprisoned for six months. The penal code provision on “voluntarily causing hurt” is most often used to punish those who cause alleged witches physical harm and provides a maximum punishment of one year in prison. While Indian laws criminalizing such things as murder, “causing grievous hurt” and rape provide much steeper punishments, these provisions are rarely used. Furthermore, only about 2 percent of witch hunting cases are ever prosecuted. Even when the perpetrator is convicted, the Indian courts often overturn the decision or reduce the punishment, frequently because the defendant was “justified” in his actions because the victim was a “witch.”

As a party to many international human rights treaties and conventions, India has an obligation to prevent witch hunting, punish witch hunters and provide support and compensation to victims and their families. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) requires state parties to prevent gender-based violence. Under this convention, gender-based violence includes violence that disproportionately affects women. Gender-based violence impairs or nullifies the victims’ enjoyment of their other basic rights and fundamental freedoms, including the right to life, the right to property and the right to security. The state obligation to prevent gender-based violence applies even where the violence is committed by private parties; states may be responsible for private acts if the state is indifferent to these acts. India’s failure to enact laws with appropriate punishments and to effectively enforce its existing laws to curb witch hunting and protect victims places it in direct violation of its legal obligations under CEDAW.

The abhorrent and gruesome acts against suspected witches violate India’s obligation to prevent torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment under the U.N. Convention Against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Forcing victims to eat excrement and parade naked through the village is clearly cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Suspected witches are often beaten and burned, sometimes in an attempt to “cure” them. India violates these treaties when it fails to punish private actors who undertake the prohibited behavior.

Merely changing laws or ensuring their enforcement will not end the practice of witch hunting. As a result, the petition filed in Indian court also asks the government to sensitize police and other government officials to the vulnerabilities of rural women, to create health and education programs for communities where witch hunting is most prevalent and to provide support services and compensation to victims of witch hunting. Only through this multifaceted approach can we hope to end this cruel and medieval practice.

Rebecca Vernon is a third-year law student at Cornell and an admissions editor for the International Law Journal. He may be reached at rbv23@cornell.edu. Barely Legal appears alternate Fridays this semester.

Original Author: Rebecca Vernon