No country for old women

Sukumuland in Tanzania is a traditional and conservative area where reliance on spiritual belief is ingrained into the fabric of daily life. Belief in witchcraft and faith in the rhetoric of traditional healers are manifested in the persecution of older women for events without rational explanation - HIV and AIDS deaths, infertility, drought and crop failure.

The standing of older people in the community, largely based on age and wisdom, is being eroded as urbanisation and migration have led to the abuse and neglect of older people by their relatives. An increase in violent attacks has left others fearful that they will be next.

Villages along the shores of Lake Victoria have encountered escalating numbers of murders: mostly older women, who have been accused of witchcraft. HelpAge International estimates that as many as 1,000 witchcraft-related killings occur in Tanzania annually.

Complaints of abuse in both Tanzania and Mozambique are confirmed by the UN Committee on the Convention on the Elimination of the Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

The reasons for these killings are complex. Tanzania and Mozambique remain two of the poorest countries in the world with over 50% of the population living below the locally defined poverty line.

A belief in witchcraft and the use of traditional healers to vocalise suspicions and vendettas seeps through the lifeblood of East Africa. There is nothing wrong with belief in spirits and a connection to the land; it is no different from other organised worship.

Ancient beliefs misleading

The harm is in utilising a respected and ancient belief system to justify irreligious violence and brutality for settling jealousies and fear of the unknown. Witchcraft is a vague and loose term, defying exact definition. All too often an accusation of witchcraft prevents the participants from confronting the true nature of the social problems that face them.

Searching for herbs in the scrubland rather than making expensive and exhausting journeys to clinics is seen as a telltale sign of witchcraft, as are red eyes: in reality often the result of older women spending a lifetime stirring maize porridge over smoky fires.

Older women particularly vulnerable

Older widows are often those most at risk. According to CEDAW, discriminatory inheritance laws and customary practices against women in both Tanzania and Mozambique are also to blame. Widows have a low status in society, have little knowledge of their rights and cannot inherit property.

Leonard Ndamguba from HelpAge International's Mwanza office explained that unlike other crimes, violence against older women is not just tolerated but accepted. The perpetrator of an attack is usually known and the feud is personal. The killing of an older woman had taken place the night before we arrived to meet Bugandando villagers. Leonard Ndamguba was sure it had been a deliberate act of intimidation intended to crush the momentum of activists like him.

Many older women are vulnerable targets with which to attribute blame for unforeseen problems. They are also regarded with suspicion for having outlived many of their own children - the so-called ghost generation of HIV and AIDS. UNICEF estimates that 14% of all children in Tanzania are orphans, of whom 64% are cared for by grandparents.

Community paralegals offer a solution

The training of community-based paralegals in inheritance and land law by HelpAge International in both Tanzania and Mozambique is a step towards achieving change for villagers. Disputing parties are encouraged to consult village paralegals rather than traditional healers.

However, the paralegals receive only minimal expenses and cannot provide answers to the endemic problems of poverty and neglect that lie behind the violence.

In N'gwaswengele, near to the Williamson diamond mine in Tanzania, the village council assured me that community justice prevails in witchcraft disputes. If an older woman accused of being a witch denies the allegation, she can appear before the council to "demonstrate" her innocence.

As an alternative to isolation or dispossession of land, a woman can compensate for her witchcraft by paying 12 cows. The problem is that no woman has ever been known to own more than 10 cows.

Attitudes are changing

The number of killings has reduced in areas where work is being done to prevent them but reporting allegations of witchcraft remains highly controversial and often dangerous.

However, attitudes to the reporting of elder abuse by local and national authorities are changing. This is partly due to efforts to implement change in the perceptions of older women through awareness-raising, and practical interventions such as the construction of secure housing and fuel-efficient stoves.

If long-term change is to be possible, older people must become the agents of change themselves; feeling able to voice their own stories and having a forum in which to do so. Changing attitudes will take time.

Tags for this page