A Modern Day Witch Hunt

Having grown up in New England not far from Salem, Massachusetts, I’ve always found the history behind the Salem witch trials fascinating and yet abhorrent at the same time. The idea of an entire community turning against you is frightening, especially if you consider how utterly dependent a woman was on others for survival in those days.

But those witch trials happened over 300 years ago. Surely that kind of superstition and fear doesn’t exist in our world today … does it?

Sadly, it does — “Tribal Woman Killed in Witch-Hunt” was one of the heartbreaking headlines I came across in my news feed this week.

When I started digging around, I found even more evidence of a widespread problem, like this article about five women who were killed earlier this month as witches in the Indian state of Jharkhand. Here are some of the highlights:

  • The entire village had allegedly taken part in the angry mob that killed these women
  • Women are often accused of being the cause of misfortunes like poor crop yields or illness
  • Approximately 37 percent of all witchcraft-related murders occur in Jharkhand
  • In some cases, elderly widows are the targets so that the village can take the property they own
  • One of the primary causes of this violence is a lack of literacy and healthcare throughout the country

And that’s only one of many superstition-based stories that have come out India lately. Last month, a 63-year-old woman in the northeastern state of Assam was stripped naked and then beheaded by villagers after she was blamed for illness in their tribal community.

And also in July, an Indian couple and four of their children were brutally killed in their sleep after their own relatives accused them of causing a string of illnesses among infants in the village. Overwhelming fear can drive people to do horrific things.

The rate of witchcraft-related killings has grown so quickly that the state of Assam passed a law in August making witch-hunting a criminal offense.

Superstition shows up throughout India, but holds special sway in rural areas. One study showed that 2,500 women accused of being witches died over a stretch of 15 years. But often only the most brutal murders are reported. Untold numbers of women have been accused, abused, and turned out of their homes and villages.

So many factors drive this kind of fear – extreme poverty, illiteracy, caste discrimination, isolation, lack of knowledge about basic health care.

Jharkhand not only has India’s highest rate of witchcraft-related murders, it is also one of India’s most illiterate states. More than half of women in the state’s rural areas cannot read and write.

Literacy classes open doors to give these marginalized women (and men) an opportunity to gain skills and knowledge that combat these social evils. And I have a renewed urgency to pray that, as each student’s eyes are opened, superstitions lose power and communities grow stronger.