THE BLOG

Why Does Witchcraft-related Abuse of Older People Still Happen in 2016?

09/03/2016 10:30 GMT | Updated 08/03/2017 10:12 GMT

"I was afraid that I would die," said Ruth, 62, describing the moment she was attacked in her home in broad daylight.

"They came at me with machetes and cut my neck, my shoulders, and my hands. They hit me on the head and I put my hand there to protect myself. They hit my shoulders and my neck. When I fell to the floor they ran out."

Ruth is a widow from a village in north eastern Tanzania. She was viciously attacked by her neighbours' sons shortly after their father died. During the attack the men repeatedly accused Ruth of using witchcraft to kill their father.

This brutal assault was just one of almost 3,000 witchcraft-related attacks against older people in Tanzania in the last five years. It is also typical of this kind of abuse in that the root cause was a failed property deal rather than spiritual beliefs, and the target was an older widow.

As we mark International Women's Day this month (8 March), the reality is that older women are still likely to have been marginalised throughout their lives due to their gender. Older age is cruelly associated with being a witch and in rural Tanzania a combination of vulnerability, poverty, age discrimination and traditional beliefs can result in older women being accused of witchcraft when financial, land or other disputes arise.

Our work in Tanzania, through the Magu Poverty Eradication Rehabilitation Centre (MAPERECE), supports older women and men living in Magu district. Athanasio Kureyunga, MAPERECE's Civic & Human Rights Coordinator, is clear that traditional beliefs are not the driver of witchcraft allegations and violence against older women.

"This is a matter of poverty," explains Athanasio.

"When you visit an older person who has been accused of being a witch, you can see that they are very very poor. Those who have good shelter and are economically well-off, they are not targeted or accused or killed."

Poverty makes older women vulnerable - not just to the accusations, but to the violent attacks themselves. The simple act of not being able to afford a wooden door or lock on their house leaves an older woman at risk in their own home.

Ruth had been married for 40 years until her husband's death in 2006. In Tanzania widows do not have a right to inherit their husband's land or property. Usually the husband's brothers, sons or nephews inherit the property, leaving widows with little to no security.

In Ruth's case, a dispute arose between her neighbour and a buyer interested in land either side of her house, and she became a target. First her crops were destroyed, then her house was dowsed in petrol and set on fire while she was sleeping and finally she was attacked when she was alone at home.

Ruth reported the incidents to the Village Executive Office but it was not until MAPERECE got involved that the situation was properly addressed.

"They followed up on my case and eventually the two boys who did it were caught. They are now in prison," Ruth said.

We run a series of practical interventions to tackle some of the root causes of witchcraft accusations, but also to build community trust and motivate people to protect the older members of their community.

One of the primary strategies to combat this type of gender- and age-based violence is providing paralegal training for older women. Older women learn about their rights under local and national law, the process for reporting witchcraft accusations and Will writing. Although wives cannot inherit land from their husbands, a Will can protect widows and tell family members who they want the property to go to.

The programme also provides wooden doors and locks for the houses of older widows. And it includes raising awareness about the issue of witchcraft-related attacks for the whole community and advocacy with public figures, including local government, police, magistrates and other local leaders - many of whom are men.

This element is a practical demonstration of UN Women's HeForShe campaign, spearheaded by Emma Watson: when it comes to issues of gender it's not enough for only women to be involved, men need to be engaged as well.

For Ruth and other women in her situation, the benefits of the scheme are greater awareness of their rights, increased confidence and a significant reduction in the number of attacks on older women. In the villages where the scheme has run, witchcraft-related killings have been reduced by up to 99%.

The programme has also impacted the way older men and women relate to each other. Joseph Mandrago, Director of MAPERECE explained the difference he has seen:

"The men used to interrupt the women, and now they don't. They see that the women can speak up too. Now we have explained that it is the women who are targeted because it is they who have been oppressed, they support the programme. They even go to the women for advice about paralegal matters."

In December 2015 the incoming Tanzanian government announced a new ministry with a specific focus on older people for the first time. Our hope is that this ministry marks a turning point in protecting older women from all forms of violence and abuse.

For more information about Age International's work focusing on witchcraft go to www.ageinternational.org.uk/witchcraft.