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Truth and Rights

400 years after widespread witch hunting ravaged Europe, today women are still being tortured and murdered in Nepal due to belief in witches.

The following story gives a detailed picture of this situation: From the human rights defenders working to find ways to stop this particular form of Violence Against Women (VAW), to survivors of Witchcraft Accusation and Persecution (WAP); to the important role of shamanism in the beliefs of many Nepalis, and how this often plays a role in these human rights abuses. 

Shamen to this day play a vital role in a large proportion of Nepali communities, especially in rural areas where historically there is a lack of medical doctors and high quality schooling. These men and women are revered as educated, wise and trusted healers, who provide much benefit to those who visit them. It is the rogue abuse of this power however, which partly explains why a shaman is all too often involved when someone is persecuted as a witch.
 
The circumstances that lead to torture and murder in the name of witchcraft are not the same in every case, but the main factors that allow these atrocities to happen in Nepal are:
- a patriarchal society and high rate of Violence Against Women,
- a long history of widely held beliefs in black and white magic,
- a low level of education (especially women),
- a high poverty rate.
 
These factors are made worse and often multiplied in the countryside where over one third of the country's population live more than a two hour hike from the nearest paved road, meaning access to schools and health centres is especially difficult.
This geographical isolation of rural communities also adds to the difficulty of accurately gauging the number of WAP related human rights abuses. The Nepali public hear of witch hunting via the national media with alarming regularity, however it is widely believed that those cases reported are merely the tip of a very large iceberg.
 
Most of Nepali society is deeply built on social status. The caste system for example, means you are born into a certain class, and most often it is the lowest caste (Dalit) who are blamed and abused as witches. The shame of being accused as a witch is so huge that very often there is nowhere to turn for help. Friends and family may not even want to defend the accused as they are then likely to also be accused through association with the perceived 'witch'. 

Add to this the often poorly trained and funded local police, who often have a patriarchal mindset and may also believe in witches. Turning to them for help has historically not been much use, because if they will not register the crime, it can not be legally pursued any further, leaving accused women to suffer their own fate, alone. These are some of the reasons why Nepali human rights defenders are confident that the vast majority of atrocities carried out in the name of witchcraft go unreported.

However there is some good news. The new Constitution of Nepal, agreed upon in 2015, has finally enacted a national anti WAP law that criminalises Witchcraft Accusation and Persecution. However as pointed out by Nepali NGO INSEC, in 2017 still no one has been charged under this law. This highlights the huge difficulty in eradicating this archaic form of violence: Having strong laws in place is a vital step for any country, but educating people with basic medical knowledge as well as knowledge of their own constitutional human rights is equally, if not more important.
 
2018 © Joe Wood