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Journal Article


Roy P. Dev. Pract. 1998; 8(2): 136-147.


(Copyright © 1998, Oxfam UK and Ireland)






In South Bihar, India, socially sanctioned witch-hunting and persecution led to the deaths of 15 women in 1994 and 24 women and children in 1994. This article presents case studies to suggest that the underlying causes of this behavior are not superstition and illiteracy but are efforts to maintain women's inferior status by enforcing female economic subjugation, sexual exploitation, and the persecution of widows and independent, vocal women. In these cases, superstitious beliefs were exploited by community members with ulterior motives who compensated village witch doctors for collaborating with any accusation made against a local woman. After an introduction and presentation of the issues, the article describes the social and economic context and presents four case studies of women accused of witchcraft. The women involved were either forced to consume human excreta and then banished; raped and left for dead when five other family members were murdered, including a year-old baby; or protected through the intervention of a nongovernmental organization or a district welfare officer. The article then discusses the implications of this phenomenon for development work through a look at the power of social sanction, the role of witch doctors, the gender dimension, the power of the village headmen and the traditional administration system, and the larger motives behind the behavior. The article ends by suggesting interventions such as focusing on eliminating atrocities towards women, forming support groups, sensitizing officials, incorporating gender sensitivity in development efforts, and increasing access to health and education.

Language: en


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