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HIV and Witchcraft in Papau New Guinea

August 9, 2010
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Women in Papau New Guinea

Earlier this week, Papau New Guinea apologized before CEDAW (The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women) for its inaction against the torture and murder of women suspected of witchcraft. Government officials did not deny that those alleged to practice witchcraft have been tortured and killed. According to the Center for Independent Studies, more than 500 women have been attacked. In 2009, there were more than 50 murders of those accused of practicing black magic, including one woman who was burned alive. Why are the people of this South Pacific island nation accusing women, and some men, of practicing black magic? They are blamed for the epidemic of HIV/AIDS, which is devastating the country’s population.

The torture and death of innocent people is horrific. Equally disturbing, however, is the lack of knowledge about HIV/AIDS among those infected by the virus: a lack of knowledge that has led to misguided murders. According to a UN study released in 2006, Papua New Guinea accounts for 90% of HIV cases in the Oceania region. The Australian government estimates that 208,000 citizens of the small country will be living with HIV/AIDS by 2012.  This country is plagued not only by an incredibly high infection rate but a desperate search for answers, and witchcraft is not something as easily discredited there as it may be elsewhere. In 1976, a Sorcery Act was passed permitting the practice of white magic under the law and outlawing the practice of black magic with punishments for the offense including up to two years in jail. More often, though, people suspected of witchcraft are violently attacked or killed before they even appear in a court.

The country came before CEDAW because it had not met goals to increase the national life expectancy for women, something especially important in this one of the few countries where men have longer life expectancies than women. It does not seem that the government is taking any proactive steps to reduce these murders, however. According to Carol Kidu, Papua New Guinea’s minister for community development,

“Research is being done on the emergence of killings of so-called witches and on the sudden increase of identifying women at the village level as witches and killing them. We have no data on sorcery and we have no data on the number of people who have been arrested for killings or practicing sorcery, or those who have gone to prison.”

None of the other delegates from Papau New Guinea commented.

Some money has been spent to fight the root of these murders: the alarmingly high rate of HIV infection. Since 2007, through the PNG-Australia HIV and AIDS Program, Australia has provided $178 million for counseling and treatment, education and prevention, social research and family support. The Clinton Foundation also works in Papau New Guinea to test and treat those with the virus.

The murders are appalling, and the rash of high rate of HIV infection in this small country is astounding. Hopefully more organizations will continue to provide education and access to care, so that the murders of these women and men cease, as well as the spread of this fateful virus.

If you know of any other organizations working in HIV/AIDS treatment or prevention in Papau New Guinea, please leave a link in the comments.

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