Papua Witch Hunts Linked to Economic Disparity, Jealousy

A series of witch hunts in Papua New Guinea are being blamed on economic disparity and jealousy among the haves and have-nots. One recent murder is just the latest of a growing trend throughout the country, which is struggling.

"Jealousy is causing a lot of hatred. People who are so jealous of those who are doing well in life, they resort to what our people believe in, sorcery, to kill them, to stop them continuing their own development," Helen Hakena, chairwoman of the North Bougainville Human Rights Committee, told the Associated Press.

The murder of Helen Rumbali, who was accused of witchcraft, is only the latest in a growing trend. Rumbali, her sister and two teenage nieces were seized from their home, which was then burned to the ground; the women were tortured, and Rumbali was later murdered. The other three women were released.

"That was definitely a case of jealousy because her family is really quite well off," Hakena said. Rumbali's family had permanent jobs, a "permanent house" and were well educated.

The United Nations issued a repeal of the Sorcery Act, which provided a defense for someone accused of murdering another for using sorcery. The act was in effect for 42 years, allowing for numerous murders to take place.

"There's no doubt that there are really genuine beliefs there and in some circumstances that is what is motivating people: the belief that if they don't kill this person, then this person is going to continue to bring death and misfortune and sickness on their village," Miranda Forsyth, a lawyer familiar with the issue, explained.

According to the Asian Development Bank, Papua New Guinea has one of the highest levels of inequality in the Asia-Pacific region. That has sparked jealousy among those who have wealth and those who do not. By invoking the Sorcery Act, people were able to take out their frustrations on one another and remain protected.

"There is always a reason for the accusation, whether it's jealousy, wanting to access someone else's land, a personal grudge against that person or a previous land dispute," Kate Schuetze of Amnesty International said.