Women's rights in Tanzania: Working with communities to stop witchcraft accusations

Imagine living in a community your whole life. Then suddenly, you are accused of witchcraft and told to leave. Or you are sent threatening letters saying you have bewitched a neighbour's child. Or you are attacked and slashed with a machete during the night.

The reality is, in many parts of the world, including Tanzania, older women are still persecuted and accused of witchcraft. Belief in witchcraft is still strong in many places and throughout society, but often these accusations have an underlying malicious element.

We believe that these accusations are a critical factor in the violation of women's rights.

Reliable data on the number of witchcraft accusations and attacks on older women in Tanzania is hard to come by. However, it is commonly accepted that these crimes are underreported and it is estimated as many as a thousand, mainly older, Tanzanian women are targeted and killed annually. 

Elias is a traditional healer involved in a HelpAge project. He doesn't name witches anymore. Elias is a traditional healer involved in a HelpAge project. He doesn't name witches anymore. (c) Jeff Williams/HelpAge International

Forced accusations

Accusations can be due to crop failure, poor milk production by cows, school drop outs, polygamy, loss of wealth and alcoholism in families. Poverty, disease, ageism, misunderstanding of the causes of HIV and gender inequality are other underlying causes.

Sometimes, it is a just a case of finding someone to blame. This is why it is generally the most vulnerable and marginalised who are targeted. Some traditional healers are pressurised into "pointing" out a witch. 

Elias, a traditional healer who is part of a joint HelpAge project said: 

"People would come to me and would ask me to point out who was causing harm to them. They put pressure on us to name someone. It caused a lot of conflict and quarrelling. Sometimes, older women would be attacked.

"Since I became involved in this project with (local NGO) AACP and HelpAge, I don't name a person. I give some relief medicine or if they have an illness I refer them to the hospital."

Working with communities to change attitudes

We have worked with our partners in Sukumaland, Tanzania since 1999. We work directly with communities to prevent witchcraft accusations and attacks against older women. With our local NGO partners, we have worked on projects in 90 villages. These include training village committee members in women's rights, including those of widows, and raising awareness of the harmful consequences of witchcraft allegations, misconceptions about HIV and other illnesses.

Using traditional drama, dance and song, we reach every community member. We have worked closely to influence the behaviour and practices of groups such as traditional healers and local militia, as well as with local government officials, religious leaders, civil society organisations and the Tanzanian media.

In each village, community members have been trained as paralegal advisers to provide support, and advice on land, inheritance and marriage rights. Between 2004 and 2008, paralegal advisers dealt with almost 20,000 cases. Nearly half of these were disputes over inheritance and land rights, mostly brought by older women.

Improving conditions for those affected

Nziku left her village after she received threatening letters. Her community brought her back and built her a new house. Nziku left her village after she received threatening letters. Her community brought her back and built her a new house. (c) Jeff Williams/HelpAge International On a practical level, our partners have mobilised local communities to build houses and improve sanitation facilities for women who have been threatened, attacked or who have simply become isolated by the rest of the community.

They have made fuel-efficient stoves to demonstrate that red eyes, often associated with witchcraft, are caused by a lifetime or working over smoky cooking fires.

Nziku started receiving threatening letters after her husband died. She was scared and moved to another village.

She said: "While I was away the village committee discussed my problem and came to bring me back. I've been back a year now and have had no trouble. This house was built by them and shows that they care for me. I now feel I'm respected."

The results of community interventions are clear. There has been a 99% reduction in the killing of older women in the areas where HelpAge and its partners are running projects.

There has been a significant reduction in disputes over land rights, inheritance and matrimonial issues, and over 30% improvements in living conditions of older women. But outside of the project areas, killings of older women continue to rise.

What next?

We still think more needs to be done to strengthen justice systems and make them more accountable to those who seek recourse - police, magistrates, lawyers need to be trained.

At a national level, we want the government of Tanzania to make changes. For example, we want all killings related to witchcraft to be investigated, prosecuted and punished. We also want inheritance laws to be reviewed to prevent property-grabbing from widows.

Our partners

Magu Poverty Focus on Older People Rehabilitation Centre (MAPERECE), Nasa Brotherhood Society for the Aged (NABROHO), Mwanza Rural Housing Programme (MRHP), Tanzania Association of Women Leaders in Agriculture and Environment (TAWLAE), Service, Health and Development for People living with HIV/AIDS (SHDEPHA), Nyanza Old Age Village (NOAV), Those in the fight against HIV/AIDS (WAMATA Sengerema)

Why is it always older women that are pointed out? Because they think we are not useful in the community, they don’t value us; they think we have no benefit. 

Doto, early 70s, Tanzania

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Over the last ten years this project has been funded by DFID, Comic Relief, the Elton John Foundation, Big Lottery Fund and Age International.

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