The African Union has proclaimed 2016 African Year of Human Rights, with a special focus on the rights of women. As the continent celebrated International Women’s Day this past March, it not only took the time to commemorate African women, but also to remind and encourage its citizens to address the obstinate gender inequalities that inhibit women from actualizing their human rights.
However, despite Africa’s attempts to reconcile women’s issues, abuse against elderly women remains a serious problem. Violence against elderly women takes many forms that range from sexual violence to property grabbing and other such financial rights abuses. Additionally, extreme violence increases against older women if they are accused of witchcraft.
According to the United Nations, witchcraft accusations are used to warrant extreme violence against older women in 41 African and Asian countries, including Burkina Faso, Cameroon, India, Kenya, Malawi, Nepal and Tanzania. HelpAge International, an organization that works to help senior citizens live a more dignified and healthy life, reports that disabled, poor, vulnerable or widowed older women are often faced with allegations of witchcraft for reason such as:
- Surviving a husband
- Being seen as having little economic value or biological productivity
- Possessing certain characteristics like red eyes or eccentric behavior
- Miscarrying or losing a child
- Living alone
HelpAge International has prioritized this issue by implementing projects that seek to challenge norms that are detrimental to the elderly in these societies. The organization has seen a 99 percent success rate and decline in the killing of older women in these areas. However, the killings continue to climb outside of such project areas.
For example, Nyamizi, a 73 year old widow from Sukumaland, Tanzania, was attacked by a man with a machete as she was returning home from work one night. The attacker chopped off her hand and lacerated her head, leaving her unconscious. Nyamizi believes she was targeted by a neighbor whose child had died, and who was told by a traditional healer that she was responsible for the death using witchcraft.
Nyamizi’s story is not unique. The Tanzanian Legal and Human Rights Centre reports that between 2004 and 2009, more than 2,585 older women were killed in eight different regions of Tanzania due to allegations of witchcraft. A follow-up report published by The Dar es Salaam-based Legal and Human Rights Centre (LHRC) estimated that 765 people accused of practicing witchcraft were killed in the east African nation in 2013, 505 of whom were women. This figure has only increased from 630 in 2012.
The LHRC explains that the belief in witchcraft cuts through all strata of society, rich or poor, educated or uneducated, young or old. Therefore, unless this entrenched cultural belief is effectively addressed, allegations of witchcraft will remain a serious threat to the lives of elderly women. In the words of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, “As long as one woman’s human rights are violated, our struggle is not over…”.
Andria Reta covers Africa for Global Health Aging. She is a Gerontologist and Professor of Health Administration.