Witch-Hunting in Eastern India, Activists Fight Back

Kristi Eaton /Home to 32 indigenous tribes known as adivasi, India’s Jharkhand State is one of several states where women are often targeted over land disputes and deemed witches.

Indigenous women in Jharkhand State are in danger of seeing violence as their fate

Elina Horo sits at her desk, combing through the pages of notes written in Hindi that recount the most recent killings.

Horo, who is coordinator of the Adivasi Women’s Network, is sharing some of the details of the most recent attacks of witch-hunting in this eastern Indian State. There was the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law killed and buried in a nearby pond after villagers said they were practicing witchcraft. In another case, five women in Mandar were proclaimed witches and lynched in a late-night raid.

Home to 32 indigenous tribes known as Adivasi, India’s Jharkhand State is one of several states where women are often targeted over land disputes and deemed witches, Horo says. Women may also be targeted because they are unmarried or widowed, or outspoken, she added.

“It’s not just the weaker women, but the stronger women are also targeted,” she says. “If she becomes a threat, it’s very easy to target the woman. It’s character assassination.”

According to the National Crime Records Bureau, there were 220 witch-hunting deaths from 2008 to 2013 in Jharkhand, though activists like Horo suspect the number is much higher and keep their own records.

A 2016 study by the Partners for Law in Development studied several cases of witch-hunting in Jharkhand. The study found that lack of education, poor healthcare and sanitation and poverty fueled the practice of witch-hunting. Women were more likely than men to be targeted.

“Contrary to the received wisdom, widows and single women were not the only ones vulnerable to witch-hunting,” according to the study. ”Majority of the victims in the case studies belonged to the age group of 40 to 60 years, showing middle-aged, married women to be the most vulnerable to witch-hunting, although there are a few instances of younger women being labeled as witches as well. In fact witch-hunting appeared to be a prevalent form of violence used to target women fully ensconced in their marital homes.”

The study found that most of the perpetrators are related to the victims through kinship, community or neighborhood ties. A significant finding, according to the study, was that some of the perpetrators were related by marriage.

“While interpersonal jealousies, conflicts and tensions arise in a context of close proximity, it seems that witch-hunting is also linked with a set of broader political and economic context which shapes people’s lives,” the study said.

Jharkhand State has laws in place for identifying a woman as a witch or for torturing someone in the name of witchcraft, but the laws in place are weak, said Vasavi Kiro, another activist who runs Torang Trust in Jharkhand, which works to empower the indigenous communities.

“So many cases are still pending,” said Kiro, a former member of Jharkhand’s State Commission for Women. She notes that there is no national legislation on witch-hunting. “It is terrible for them,” she said. Village people, particularly men, create a situation where the woman is forced to leave the village, she said.

Many women have had to leave their villages for fear their own relatives such as uncles or brothers-in-laws will attack them for their land if they are widowed or unmarried, she said. In the past three months, Kiro said, about 14 women have been killed for superstition in different parts of Jharkhand.

“In many cases, if she’s educated with a job, living a good life, they start saying she’s a witch,” Kiro added.

The problem, Horo said, is that many women don’t understand their rights, even the well-educated women. “So they think domestic violence is just their fate,” Horo said.

But the Adivasi Women’s Network works to educate women about their rights and connect them with others. About 200 women are involved in the network and become community mobilizers, Horo said.

The network uses theater performances to educate about the issue of witch-hunting and other issues facing Indigenous Peoples.

“It’s more interesting, more interactive” than just listening to a speaker, Horo said. “It gives them an opportunity to self-assess and self-reflect.”

The organization is also turning to art and culture to empower and embolden women in villages across Jharkhand. Women rarely play the traditional instruments of the nagara and mandar, but now they are learning how to play the instruments that historically were used to convey messages between villages, Hiro said.

“Women traditionally dance, but we want to teach them they can play the instruments too,” she added.

Kristi Eaton reported this story from India as a fellow with the International Reporting Project.

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