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Ageing in the media: Good news is no news

01 Dec 2010

We work with older people like Kabipe, who was accused of bewitching her children when they died.Good news is no news it seems when it comes to stories about older people and global ageing.

It seemed to us that media stories that highlight elder abuse and extreme rights violations have been on the increase over the last month.

"Witches on Trial"

Last month the British TV channel, Channel 4, broadcast "Witches on Trial" as part of its excellent series Unreported World.

The documentary focused on the Central African Republic, a country in which nearly half the prison population are convicted witches.

In many areas, witchcraft is used to explain every misfortune and is a feature of almost every family quarrel or village dispute. As the programme showed and HelpAge regularly highlights, it's often the most vulnerable in a community who are singled out.

Since 1960 it's been illegal to use witchcraft to harm others. Those found guilty can be jailed for up to ten years or even sentenced to death. Even though it is against the law, there is no explanation in the penal code to what actually constitutes witchcraft.

The vulnerable are singled out

Unreported World interviewed the police to find out how they tackle a phenomenon that isn't even defined. One police captain says often eyewitness testimonies are enough to prosecute.

The team attends one older man trial. His case, like others, seems to be based on rumour. Much to everyone's astonishment he pleads guilty. After the trial he tells Unreported World he was too scared to deny it.

The film crew visit a prison where more than half the prisoners are accused or convicted of witchcraft. The inmates all appear to be vulnerable, many of them older people. This was a thoughtful documentary dealing with a subject often sensationalised and laden with value judgments.

Preventing witchcraft accusations

HelpAge recently commissioned a study of legislation related to witchcraft in a number of different countries and this has highlighted the inadequacies of specific witchcraft related laws.

HelpAge believes that acts of violence against people accused of witchcraft should be prosecuted under existing criminal laws, such as assault, theft, damage to property or murder.

We believe that one of the most appropriate and successful responses to preventing accusations of witchcraft and related violence is to work through community based interventions, such as our work in northern Tanzania.

Other media have also covered witchcraft allegations in other countries. A recent story from The Guardian's development site reports on the 1,000 women accused of witchcraft in northern Ghana.

They live in refuges, where they have to pay for protection from the chief who runs them. Yaba Badoe visits a camp in Gambaga and follows two women as they return to their villages.

This film also highlighted the fact that there all always those who benefit from such accusations.

Read our feature on witchcraft accusations in Tanzania, "No Country for Old Women"

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Author profile

Rosaleen Cunningham
Country: Ireland
Job title: Freelance Media and Communications

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These blogs are personal reflections and do not necessarily reflect the views of HelpAge International.