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Changing attitudes to stop witchcraft accusations

14 Jun 2011

I was at a meeting recently with one of our partners TAWLAE (Tanzania Women Leaders in Agriculture & Environment) talking to older people about the successes of our projects which address violence against older women and attacks on older women accused of witchcraft.

It's been a long haul, influencing and changing attitudes and behaviour towards women, especially older women. Though we very rarely have any attacks or killings of older women in the 90 villages we work on, killing of older women is on the increase in Tanzania. We're here today talking about what we have achieved and what is still to do.

Changing attitudes

Eliasenya Nnko, is the chairperson of TAWLAE. She says "Our work involves changing attitudes, so we work with influencers - police, magistrates, etc... We can't work in isolation. Now for example, resident magistrates are our champions of older women's rights.

We were joined at the meeting by other older people involved in our work. Alfons Nyabeho, 75, who said: "Yes, use my real name, use it in full! I'm the village HIV awareness facilitiator." Then Mary Joan, 60 and mobilisation committee secretary and Suleman, 71, chair of his community mobilisation committee.

Some have been working on these projects for three years, "but we're not counting," they said.

Aflons and Mary JoanMary Joan said: "We are addressing our communities, raising important issues. Because we are talking about making peace, about everyone's rights, people listen to us.

"It's not because of our age that people listen to us, but simply because the issue matters to everyone. These issues, rights, affect everyone.

"After being trained we went straight to our villages to ensure those isolated older people were brought back into villages. We showed our neighbours these older people were good, ordinary people.

"We're also working with families, with children, talking to them about caring and talking with their grandparents, talking to families to ensure older people's housing and sanitation is in good condition, because if it's not this means they become isolated form everyone else.

"Things are getting worse for older people"

"Things are getting worse for older people. People used to respect older people. Young people think they can survive without us. Older people are out of fashion! We have the task of showing people that older people are leaders too."

Alfons added: "Being an older person doesn't mean you were born old! We tell younger people "be prepared to become an older person". Your rights should stay the same though.

"We've led the construction of houses to show care is an important aspect of a community. We are skilled now in things like fuel efficient stoves and we are passing this practical knowledge on. The problem of red eyes is ending. (A common legacy for older women who have suffered a lifetime of cooking for their families over smoky, inefficient stoves using poor quality fuel.) Now we are moving on to other villages to show them they can do the same. In fact they are asking us to show them how to support their older people.

"We have 20 paralegals, and a village rights library ("rights-in-a-box") which I put together some time ago. There are seven titles in this collection - on the constitution of Tanzania, marriage and inheritance laws and rights, all written in simple Swahili. Often grandchildren will read them to their grandparents.  

Stopping the hatred

SulemanSuleman joined in by saying: "Young people see that we are taking action, and women are now claiming their rights and accessing the village libraries.

"I've been working with traditional healers. We started identifying and mobilising ones we knew we could work with. We ask them to refer sick people to the hospital, and they no longer practise "pointing".

"I also changed my own views. Before I believed that women with red eyes were witches - now I see they are good people."

Alfons agreed: "Why did traditional healers change their practices? Because they realised their "witch-pointing" was fuelling hatred. They realised that a practical hospital treatment is more important than witch-pointing.

"We talked to everyone in the community about the severe impact that "pointing" had on an older woman and the community."

"If there are rumours, people will cut you off."

Mary-Joan then gave an example: "In our village there were two abandoned older women. People were secretly fearful of them but did not openly accuse them of anything. But they were isolated from everyone else.

"We asked people, "how can you prove they are witches?" We talked about these older women's rights, and involved them in village affairs. The village government did nothing but we organised a big meeting. Then village government officials came to the meeting and did act on the issue - from then on the village began to include these women again in daily activities."  

Alfons finished by saying: "Yes, if there are rumours, people will immediately cut you off. They will stop calling by, or dropping in to borrow some salt, or coming to see you if you are ill.

"You have to stop associating with them because you are afraid you will be accused too."    

With older people like these as our champions, we are making a difference. But the works continues. 

Your comments

Judy Lear, National Gray Panthers

Good, clear picture of what is happening -- thank you! It is a shame that older women, who have taken care of families in the past, are being treated poorly. You are doing good work to challenge the misconceptions.


It is sad that in this age and times communities still regard old people with low esteem. One's appearance should not make one be suspected of being a witch or anything lesser than the rest of the people in the society. We must know that however young you may think you are, one time you will be there. Imagine you being discriminated on the account of age... very sad indeed. what if it you mother, grandmother or any of your closest relative who is being mistreated that way; how would you feel? Let's learn to treat old people with the rest they deserve.


very sorry. every one should play her or his part to eliminate this kind of social evil from society.


Now i believe that the oldest women are not almost involving in bad action like the witchcraft like the people sayed but are good ones because the give out the good advise to the young people. The people who believe that the old women are the witchcraf are not educated well they need to be educate first inorder to eradicate the incrasement of killing the old women and this will help. Im in Bukoba Tanzania

Lok Bhattarai

The idea of witchcraft does not only represent a superstitious worldview, but they are used as a tool of oppression and exclusion. To work against the problem is to engage with the political framework which likely empowers older people especially the widow. Way forward probably is to ensure dignity and respect for the older people, relative independence of the widows for the livelihood, and realisation of rule of law by all including widows.

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Author profile

Juliana Bernard
Country: Tanzania
Job title: Gender and Legal Coordinator

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