Attacks on elderly Tanzania women spark plan against witch hunters

 

Thomson Reuters 2

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation

 

Author: Thomson Reuters Foundation

 

Elderly women in Tanzania fear attacks. Photo by Kizito MakoyeElderly women in Tanzania fear attacks. Photo by Kizito Makoye

 

DAR ES SALAAM, April 16 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – A rising number of attacks on elderly women in Tanzania accused of witchcraft has prompted the launch of a campaign to protect older women in the impoverished east African nation.

Human rights groups say deep seated cultural beliefs, the low status of women, and the need to hold someone responsible when misfortune strikes have created a culture where allegations against older women and subsequent violence is tolerated.

Vigilante gangs blaming witches for deaths or crop failures have killed rising numbers of women in recent years and a ban on witchdoctors by the government this year has led to more attacks, said Mary Mutoni, the executive secretary of Saidia Wazee, a non-profit group promoting older women’s rights.

The Dar es Salaam-based Legal and Human Rights Centre estimates 765 people accused of being witches were killed in Tanzania in 2013, up from 640 in 2012, with over 500 women.

Most of the women attacked were in their late middle age or older and many were said to have red eyes, perceived by many Tanzanians as a sign of being a witch, the group said.

HelpAge International, a non-profit organization that works to help older people, has launched a two-year project this month to improve community awareness about older women’s rights while also providing legal advice and counselling to any victims.

Joseph Mbasha, a HelpAge programme manager, said it also aimed to protect women from witchcraft related violence.

« There’s a nationwide outcry due to the physical torture and murder of innocent older women for the allegations that they are practicing witchcraft, » he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

 

ELDERLY WOMEN MOST AT RISK

The widespread belief in witchcraft in Tanzania has hit the headlines this year due to a rise in the number of attacks on albinos whose body parts are used in spells said to bring luck.

United Nations officials have voiced fears of more attacks ahead of an election this year as politicians seek good fortune.

Mbasha said this belief in witchcraft coupled with other traditions that legitimize gender-based violence and the erosion of traditional respect for the elderly put older women at risk.

For example widows have a legal right to inherit their husbands’ property in Tanzania but often they are denied this.

« The relatives of the deceased will do whatever possible to grab everything from the widow while accusing her of killing her husband, » Mbasha said, stressing that more popular knowledge of widows’ legal rights was needed and legal aid to support them.

Campaigners said it was important to address the issues faced by elderly women with Tanzania’s population ageing.

Tanzania has 1.3 million people aged 65 plus, or about 2.9 percent of its 50 million population, according the CIA World Factbook. This figure is forecast to climb to 8.3 million by the year 2050 with 4.5 million of these women.

The 300,000 euro (US$320,000) HelpAge project, supported by the European Union, is being rolled out in 10 villages in Magu District of north-western Mwanza region.

Programme managers will work with the relevant government authorities and lawmakers to better apply policies and laws that protect and uphold the rights of older women.

Leah Makubi, 68, who was attacked by an unknown gang at her house at Kahangala village in Magu last year, hopes the project will change her community’s attitude towards older women.

« It is sad that women are targeted in these attacks. The only sin we seem to have committed is to grow old, » she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Magu. (Editing by Belinda Goldsmith) ;))

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