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State Consultation - Renewing Social, Political and Legal Commitment Against Witch Hunting

6th October 2012
In view of the rising graph of witch hunting cases and atrocity on women, a collective of organizations lead by PAIRVI, Vikas Bharati, FLAC, AASHA, and Humanity organized a State Consultation at Ranchi on 6th October. More than 70 civil society organizations, Panchayat members, women, survivors of witch hunting, academic community and lawyers attended the Consultation. The Chief Guest of the function was Mrs. Vimla Pradhan, Hon’ble Minister of Social Welfare and Women and Child Development. The Consultation was also attended by Jusctice Narayan Roy, Chairperson of the State Human Rights Commission, Dr. Hemlata S Mohan, Chairperson of the State Women Commission, Prof. Ramesh Sharan (Ranchi University), Adv G S Jaiswal, Adv Rashmi Katyayana, Ms Ranjana (Member, State Child Rights Commission).
 
Mr. Ashok Bhagat (Secretary, Vikas Baharati) opened the discussion by welcoming the guests and laying down the background of the issue, and its scale in the state. He said that despite several efforts the witch hunting continues in the state unabated. He added that besides political and legal efforts, the social sensitivity and education need to be increased substantially to eliminate the evil practice of witch hunting. Ajay Kumar Jha,   provided the national perspective and various efforts being made in different states to curb thus heinous crime and atrocity on women. He said that the problem exists in more than 15 states, however, it is more prevalent in north and eastern states. He added that more than 2500 women have been killed during the last decade and half due to witch hunting. He added that legislative though has never been successful unless accompanied by social, and economic empowerment of women, however, its an important component in strategies in dealing with superstition, and weak laws in many states have been of little help to curbing this practices, which is mired insuperstition but has an important element of struggle for the power and patriarchy in the society. Mr. Ajay Bhagat of FLAC presented the study conducted. He said that more than 1200 women have been killed in the state in the last decade and majority of the killings have taken place in the capital district of Ranchi (124). He added that FLAC has proposed many gaps in the Act and implementation of the Act, but the government has not been able to either improve the Act or taking other serious efforts in social or awareness aspect. Mrs. Hemlata S Mohan, Chair of the Women Commission said that the Commission along with the department of social justice is committed to eradicate this problem and have been engaged in accompaniment of victims and survivors of the witch hunting practices. Mrs. Vimla Pradhan, the Hon’ble Minister of Social Justice and Women and Child developments said that the government was serious on this issues, and in view of the fact that only legislative approach was not sufficient to deal with the social evil, the ministry has decided to spend almost 40 lakh a year on awareness and education. However, she promised that the law will be also reviewed and if the need be a new law will be legislated on consultation with the Chief Minister. The Chair of the session Justice Narayan Roy, Chairperson of the state Human Rights Commission said that the Commission has given special attention to the cases of witch hunting in the state and in many cases, it has awarded compensation up to Rs. 5 lakh to the victim. He also emphasized that education and awareness hold the key in eradication of witch hunting. He elaborated that in view of the strongly held belief of indigenous and tribal populations in the practice of occult, witchery, witchcraft etc. there was very little that the Act or law could achieve. He also added that civil society has a significant role in breaking taboos and superstition.
 
The second session witnessed the participation of advocates, academicians and practitioners in coming to an agreement on what needs to be done on priority basis. Opening the discussion Prof. Ramesh Sharan, University of Ranchi said that education and improvement in health services and information on child and mothers health can have significant impact in removing the superstition that witches can harm and cause death of the children. He added that tribal populations earlier refused to take oral polio vaccine, however, when made to understand that it was extremely critical for good health of their children, they started taking it. He said that similar superstitions and belief are coming in the way of feeding practices of newly born children generally and breastfeeding immediately after the birth in particular. He added that “ojhas” and “gunis” make profit out of ignorance of the tribal population, and brand women as witches when they find themselves incapable of curing a disease. He said that it is important that scientific education, information about their own body, diseases and reasons reach the tribal and indigenous population through films and school education so that they able to understand the real reasons of illness and deaths and come out of the superstition.
 
Mr. Sanjay Basu Mallik (BIRSA) explained the connection between rights of women and patriarchy. He explained that the cases of witch hunting are concentrated in the pockets where women enjoy comparatively more freedom and rights (in tribal and indigenous communities), branding and torturing women as witches are assertion of their male counterparts to have control over the property and person of women and has strong basis in the patriarchal society that we have. He explained that is the only reasons why all ojhas and gunis are men and all witches women. He also said that at times it also transforms into a struggle for power between tribal and non tribal as all the ojhas and gunis are essentially non tribal’s and women branded as witches are essentially from tribal communities. He added that eradication is possible only through two ways, either you completely take powers of women or further empower them so men in the community do not. He suggested that education and dealing with patriarchy through empowerment of women should be at the centre of efforts to eradicate witch hunting practices.
 
Mrs. Poonam Toppo representing Asha and one of the survivors of the witch hunting said that education, health services and empowerment of women including economic and political empowerment are necessary and should have precedence in strategies to curb this heinous practice which takes away the lives of innocent women. She also added that children of the victims need to be taken care of the states, and though social initiatives are required to fight against these practices, it is the state which is primarily responsible to ensure that women are not victimized and social, and economic support is provided to victims for their rehabilitation.
 
Mrs. Aradhana Singh (Inspector, Kotwali Ranchi) dwelt on her experience in tackling witch hunting cases, and emphasized that social attitude need to change to provide support to the women identified and branded as witches. She added that mostly it is a single women against an entire village, and without any kind of support, women have very limited access to law and justice. She also said that in view of the burden of proof on the victim, the prosecution fails to make a strong case and hence very low conviction in these cases.
 
Mr. Rashmi Katyayana, advocate and faculty of the XISS, Ranchi focused on increased involvement of the tribal communities in fighting against this practice. He added that all the efforts are taken without taking them in the confidence and are therefore bound to fail in view of strongly held belief of tribal communities on this issue. He added that none of the efforts focus on engagement of tribal communities on this issue, which is of prime importance. He also added that the role of tribal associations and religious bodies, as well as PRIs are extremely important, which strategies must take into cognizance.
 
Chair of the session Mr. G S Jaiswal, advocate traced the origin of the Act from undivided Bihar and said that initially there was huge opposition on the Act against witch hunting and therefore, a simple Act was drafted. When Jharkhand was made a separate state, many of the policymakers belonging to tribal community were themselves not in favour of a strong legislation, which they felt can impinge upon the religion, rituals and practices of the tribal community. He explained that however, in view of the rising number of witch hunting cases, an alternative law (more comprehensive) was made, which the govt. has failed to legislate. He highlighted that the current law suffers from a number of flaws and rather provides protection to the accused due to these flaws. 
 
The vote of thanks was delivered by Mr. Ajay from Humanity, who said that increased and sustained efforts are required at social, political and legal fronts to eradicate the practice from the state.
 
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