India: Protective Laws Fall Short for Women Charged with Witchcraft

Public act of humiliation as woman is tied to tree and hair is shaved.
45 year old Bihari Dalit woman, Lalpari Devi, is publically humiliated as she is tied to a tree and her hair is shaved.

Are Legal Protections Available?

While a woman accused of being a witch has a future that may not be certain, the Chhattisgarh government is trying to create laws that will stand for some type of legal protective action.

“Nobody will dare to attack her again,“ declared one of the Chhatisgarh police officers involved in Mita Bai’s case.

Legislation in Chhatisgarh is now making the charges of witchcraft a non-bailable offense, but it comes with an unbalanced and unfair treatment of the women who are suffering the most. It includes a “protective” prison term for the alleged “witch” of up to five years.

This clearly flawed attempt at a solution, while trying to offer physical safety for women, could add more harm than good to women accused of witchcraft. The new law comes as legislators try to provide a buffer of safety for a women accused of being a witch as she is separated from her attackers. It also attempts to give accusers, “an alternate recourse against women besides the violence,” say local legislators.

But the law does not recognize the need to severely punish, first, those who are attacking the accused women. Instead it outlines a program of punishment aimed at the woman and refuses to provide dignity and respect for women who have faced unjust allegations.

Some laws in India do punish those who commit violence against women in cases of witchcraft allegations. Those who are integral in causing the problem, though, like the village ojha, who is the one who publicly “names a woman a witch,” are rarely sentenced to over six months.

Those who are accused of committing the violent act itself against a “witch” are usually sentenced to no more than one year. Those accused of murder often get reduced judgments or overturned sentences, as India’s current court system cannot adequately handle fair jurisprudence in cases involving superstition and witchcraft.

The ineffectiveness of courtroom justice concerning cases of women who have been severely injured, damaged or killed by allegations of witchcraft does more than involve issues of superstition. It involves international human rights law.

“The state of Jharkhand is deviating from International law obligations requiring India to address and prevent the problem of witch-hunting, which has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of women.”
– Cornell Law School International Human Rights Clinic, petition to the High Court of Judicature, Ranchi, Jarkhand State, India – January 2010

“The continued perpetuation of witchcraft related violence violates many international human rights that women are possessed of,” states the petition, “including their right to equality and non-discrimination, the right to life, the right to be free from cruel and inhuman treatment, the right to security, the right to adequate housing, the rights to access national tribunals, and the obligation to provide effective measures for relief.”

“International courts mandate that this Court (High Court of Judicature, Jarkhand State, India) must take action to provide effective judicial remedies for violations of these integral human rights,” the appeal continues.

Four states in India have approved protective anti-witchcraft laws, but they are still ineffective to protect most women accused of witchcraft. Police protections, courtroom decisions and legal representations need much more improvement. Education on the issues surrounding violence of women, superstitions and belief, along with greater understanding of equal human rights for women are essential to marking improvements.

Bihar, was first to pass the Prevention of Witch (Dayan) Practices Act of 1999. This was followed by Jharkhand’s Anti-Witchcraft Act in 2001 along with the 2005/2006 Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan laws.

Very recently, on March 12, 2010, the Indian Supreme Court in New Delhi refused to hear a petition called “The Witchcraft Act,” that asked for local regional cases involved with witchcraft allegations, to be allowed to enter the highest courtrooms within their regions. Witchcraft cases, if they can make it to court, are currently kept only in the lower court system without option for any higher court appeal.

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[YouTube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YwU5x8rmvRA?rel=0]
Human rights defender and activist, 70 year old, Birobala Rabha, has been fighting superstitions in Thakuvila, Assam, India for many years to help to liberate women in the region who have been charged with witchcraft. This 2:17 min video is part of a February 2010, IBN.Live news release.

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Journalist Shuriah Niazi is a WNN correspondent based in Bhopal, India. In 2006, he received award recognition at the sixth Sarojini Naidu journalism awards hosted by The Hunger Project – India. In 2008, Shuriah also received a CARE / WFS – Women’s Feature Service fellowship for outstanding human rights reporting covering global women’s issues. Additional research material for this story has also been provided by Lys Anzia, humanitarian journalist and Editor-At-Large for Women News Network – WNN.

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©Women News Network – WNN

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