Extreme violence and abuse is common against older women in Tanzania due to allegations of witchcraft. According to the Tanzania Legal and Human Rights Centre, between 2004 and 2009 more than 2,585 older women were killed in eight regions of the country because of alleged witchcraft. Although Tanzania has ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women and has made moves to tackle gender-based violence, and the government has passed laws that protect women and girls from sexual harassment and abuse and give them more land rights, such laws and rhetoric do not necessarily cut through cultural and traditional practices, particularly in rural areas.
HelpAge International believes that witchcraft allegations are often generated by wider problems in the community. Limited understanding of HIV and Aids as well as other illnesses, such as childhood diseases, can result in the belief that a family has been “bewitched”. In cases where husbands have died, widows are often blamed, providing a pretext for relatives of the deceased to deny them the right to inherit family assets.
Nyamizi, a 73-year-old widow from Sukumaland, was returning home from work one night when she was attacked by a man with a machete. He chopped off her hand and slashed her head, knocking her unconscious. Nyamizi was unconscious for a day and spent three weeks in hospital. When she left, she was told her case had already been heard in court and that she had lost it.
“I didn’t get justice because I couldn’t pay for it. No one takes action for those who are poor,” she said.
She had earlier received a threatening letter telling her to leave her village. Nyamizi believes it was sent by a neighbour whose child had died, and who was told by a traditional healer that she was responsible for the death using witchcraft. Traditional healers are often approached by those who have suffered a misfortune, illness, or death in the family, to identify who in the community has been “bewitching” them. The traditional healer usually points to an older, vulnerable woman in the village. Witches are said to have red eyes, a common feature of older women who spend their lifetime cooking for their families over smoky, inefficient stoves using poor quality fuel.
HelpAge and its local NGO partners have developed practical interventions to tackle some of the root causes of witchcraft accusations. They work with traditional healers and community police, helping to build houses and fuel-efficient stoves for vulnerable older women. These interventions also build community trust and motivate people to protect the older members of their community.
In the interim, however, the witch hunts continue.