Coming home – reintegration in communities after accusations of sorcery

Beaten and named a sorcerer by her community, Mary fled her home. With support from Oxfam and the Kafe Urban Settlers Women’s Association, Mary was able to access the crisis services she needed and safely return to her village.

The project Responding to Gender-Based and Sorcery-Related Violence in the Highlands sits within Oxfam’s Gender Justice program in Papua New Guinea. The project started in 2014 to respond to sorcery-related accusations and violence by providing repatriation and reintegration support and crisis services to survivors. The first phase researched repatriation as a viable pathway out of violence, and since then, the approach has been expanded nationally. Pacific Women funding includes support for Oxfam’s partner Kafe Urban Settlers Women’s Association (KUSWA) in Eastern Highlands Province. Below is a case study, showcasing one survivor’s experience with KUSWA under this project.

Mary (not real name) is a mother of five children. In 2018, Mary went through a traumatising time when she and another woman were accused of practicing sorcery on a young child who died in her community in Enga Province.  Witnesses said that the child died of an epileptic attack, however, the surrounding community accused Mary and held her responsible for the child’s death. As a result, Mary was brutality beaten by members of her community.

Mary managed to escape with help from her step-brother but had to leave behind three of her children. She was hospitalised for some time. When she regained her strength, she made her way to the police. There she reported the names of the perpetrators.

Mary returned to her community. A mediation process offered her some hope for justice: the perpetrators agreed to pay her compensation. But the compensation was not paid, and it transpired that the girl who was presumed dead was still alive and being treated for epilepsy.

Nonetheless, Mary found it very hard to settle back in because she was seen as a bad person in her community and they still labelled her as a ‘sanguma’ (sorcerer). Whenever a death occurred in the village without a proper explanation, the blame kept being placed on Mary. This meant Mary and her family remained unsafe and excluded from the community.

The treatment she endured in her community was worse than living in a different community. She felt that she did not belong there. She had fewer friends, family members wouldn’t speak to her and she usually spent her time alone because people feared her. She decided to leave.

Mary called a nun from the Catholic Church in Enga and a Human Rights Defender who had offered to help her when she was in hospital. The nun and Human Rights Defender assisted Mary to leave the community and referred her to KUSWA. KUSWA supported Mary by admitting her to a safe house in Goroka, Eastern Highlands Province for temporary accommodation. With the accommodation came meals and support for other medical costs. Mary and her daughters also had counselling at the safe house. Mary and her children were safe from harm. However, this was only a temporary solution, and work began to help Mary return to her village.

KUSWA, with support from the Oxfam Case Management Officer, started communicating with the Human Rights Defenders in Enga to organise for Mary’s return – but this time with support from police officers and community leaders. This negotiation was necessary to guarantee her and her family’s survival in the community if she returned. KUSWA and Oxfam continued to communicate with the authorities, and the Human Rights Defenders in Enga, Police in Eastern Highlands and Enga Province and community leaders formed a team to support Mary and her daughters to be reintegrated in their community.

KUSWA and Oxfam supported Mary and her daughters with:

  • Issuing an Interim Protection Order.
  • Reintegration funds.
  • Support from police, Highland Women Human Rights Defenders and other stakeholders.
  • Consents from community leaders and magistrates saying no harm would be done to Mary or her children.
  • Logistics for police and other stakeholders.
  • Confirmation letters from the Police Station Commander stating that it was now safe for Mary and her children to return.

Through Mary’s reintegration, the network of stakeholders and service providers was strengthened. This strengthened relationship created a platform for police officers to conduct an awareness event in the community. The police explained to the community members that they do not have the right to judge a person or take the law into their own hands. The Goroka Family and Sexual Violence Unit Police Officer emphasised the law and penalties for sorcery-accusation related violence, reminding the community that the document they signed was a contract that provided assurances to Mary that no harm would come to her. The Police Station Commander stressed that if Mary was abused in any way, perpetrators must be reported as soon as possible, or community leaders would be held responsible. The Interim Protection Order was read by the Police Station Commander to the community before handing it over to the Chair of the village court.

With this support, Mary has now settled back into the village and is accepted by her community, as she was before the first accusation. Mary says: ‘I am very happy, my children and I are settling in well. There are no threats or inappropriate behaviour that would make me feel uncomfortable. I have started building my house with the reintegration funds that were given to me. I am busy doing gardening and the children are safe.’

Mary said that when Oxfam and KUSWA were supporting her reintegration to her village, she had a lot of questions.  She was worried about things such as: Will the community accept her back? Where would she and her family sleep? Now, she says ‘I was worrying over nothing. My biggest happiness is with Oxfam and your partners who have helped me this far. I don’t have words to describe how I feel and I can’t thank you enough.’

Through their actions, the Engan Provincial Government is taking responsibility for preventing and responding to sorcery accusation-related violence, with support from the KUSWA Human Rights Defenders and other service providers.