“Women not witches” education in Papua New Guinea

Actors during a Seeds Theatre Group drama performance.

Seeds Theatre Group taking a break between performances.

Participants undertaking gender-based-violence training.

Participants receiving their certificates at the end of the training.

The superstitious belief in the power of certain people to harm others through ‘black’ magic is deeply rooted in Papua New Guinea tradition and society.  Fear and criminalization of witchcraft, however, has led to an increase in gender-based violence against women who are wrongfully accused of practicing witchcraft.

Through the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives, the High Commission of Canada in Canberra supported a recent project by Seeds Theatre Group in the Highlands region of Papua New Guinea to reduce the growing trend of female-targeted witch-hunts in the area.

A history of superstition

The fear of witchcraft and sorcery is fundamental to the traditional culture of many of Papua New Guinea’s 860 language groups. In 1971 the country’s Sorcery Act criminalized the practice of ‘black’ magic, which often refers to sorcery and witchcraft. This Act has resulted in violence, torture and murder as some communities are taking it upon themselves to investigate and punish women suspected of practicing witchcraft.  

Planting the seeds of acceptance

Seeds Theatre Group uses theatre and drama to address issues that are affecting Papua New Guinea socially, economically and politically. Throughout February 2015, Seeds Theatre Group conducted awareness training for 20 community leaders, performed theatre presentations, and produced a media campaign to educate communities and change patriarchal views about women in the Western Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea.

“We have tried to use a wide range of strategies in an attempt to reach as many persons as possible. We are very grateful to the Canadian Government for their support in this project, which is the first of its kind in the country,” said Mr. Willie Doaemo, Seeds Theatre’s Project Manager.

Following the training, a group of local community leaders formed the Western Highlands Violence Response Team. There have already been media reports that women have been saved from violent situations thanks to the response team – an immediate and tangible example of the impact of this project.   

Separating fact and fiction

Some communities in Western Highlands Province strongly believe that sorcery can cause sickness and death. An important component of the Seeds Theatre training was educating communities about health issues that lead to illness and death, rather than blaming sorcery. This led to many participants becoming more aware of the need to take care of their own health and hygiene to avoid illness.

Though this project was the beginning of a long journey, those involved agree that it was a great success. Seeds Theatre is already continuing their work with additional partners to end gender based violence against women in other provinces across Papua New Guinea.