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DAR ES SALAAM, July 3 (IPS) - Human rights activists have decried the deaths of over 500 elderly women, suspected of being witches, who were stoned, hacked to death or lynched in northwest Tanzania last year.
The murders generally took place around the north west regions of Shinyanga, Tabora and Mwanza. Police spokesperson, Ignas Mtana, says murders related to witchcraft tend to follow a certain pattern. He says generally, the killers break down the door of the victim's house at night, go straight to her bedroom and kill her, using a sharp knife locally known as "panga" or sometimes an axe.
They usually do not harm anybody else in the house or remove anything from the house. Even the instruments used to kill are left at the scene, adds Mtana.
Most of the elderly women are killed in a period of one week to one month following the death of a relative. Mtana says the family members go to soothsayers to find out the cause of the death and the soothsayers will usually name witchcraft as the cause.
A sociologist and researcher from Shinyanga, Joseph Mihangwa, says the "sukuma" tribe, which has the biggest population in the three regions, believe that a young person cannot die unless she or he has been bewitched. He said one of the identification marks of an alleged witch is a red tinge in the eye.
Gender consultant, Rose Mgema, says research conducted in Mwanza and Kilosa district in the central region of Morogoro has revealed that women with red eyes are victims of indoor pollution. Mgema says the study shows that almost every female in the villages in Tanzania cooks daily on wood stoves and inhales amounts of benzopyren (a poisonous gas ) equivalent to 20 cigarettes a day.
She says in regions like Mwanza, Tabora and Shinyanga, because of a scarcity of fuel wood, sometimes cow dung is used as an alternative to firewood. "Use of low quality biomass fuels like cow dung cause indoor pollution which is a hazard reflected in eyes turning red," says Mgema.
In Tanzania there is a witchcraft ordinance. "The gist of the ordinance recognises some practices which are believed to affect persons as they believe that those acts are harmful if targeted against someone. For example it says a person will be accused of performing witchcraft acts if, he or she, is found moving around another persons house or compound at night while naked," says Alex Mgongolwa a lawyer with the Women Legal Aid Center based in the capital Dar es Salaam.
Surprisingly, those hundreds of elderly women are killed every year not because they have been legally accused of performing witchcraft acts but because some traditional healer has instigated the lynching, he adds.
However, Milangwa says the barbaric killing of old women in Tanzania will continue unless people change their attitudes towards witchcraft and realise the value of elderly persons in society.
He says the lack of education, poor health services and paganism are major factors which have resulted in society being unable to define the causes of death. Unawareness and the lack of quality accessible health care services have made people resort to consulting traditional healers who, often just tell them what they want to hear.
Milangwa says a study he carried out in the Shinyanga region, between February and May this year, shows that the region, with its population of more than 2.4 million people, has only 261 dispensaries and 21 health centers.
He said water shortage was also a problem and by 1999 only 25.5 percent of the regional population had an adequate water supply and as a result diseases like bilharzia, diarrhoea, eye diseases and cholera were common among the population.
With regards to education, Mihangwa said in I998 over 125,000 children were supposed to be enrolled in class one but only 50 percent actually were. In I999 out of 126,590 children who qualified to be registered for schooling 78,868 were left out while this year out of 137,989 children of school going age 73,295 are not in school.
Mwanza Deputy regional police commander, Caroli Rajabu, says one of the problems in curbing the crime is the lack of evidence when the suspects are taken to court. He attributed this to the fact that the murderers are usually hired from distant places and although close relatives guide them, the community would not dare to reveal their identity.
He says since 1990 his region has arrested 215 people suspected of killing elderly persons because of witchcraft beliefs but none of them of them has been prosecuted because of lack of evidence.
As a result of the insecurity elderly women flee their homes and live elsewhere. A survey conducted in September I999 by the Tanzania Media Women's Association, an organisation which has been very vocal against the killings, found that more than 100 old women were loitering and begging in the streets of Shinyanga region with no place to lay their heads at night.
Kwangu Ndilla is one of them. Although she escaped death, her right hand was cut off and she was badly wounded in head, chest and her left shoulder with a panga. " How will I lead my life now with one hand off?' she asks.
Anna Zengo, 60, is another victim. She says her troubled life began when she separated from her husband in Isaka village in Shinyanga's district of Kahana and ended up living a miserable life. Traditional security guards known as 'sungusungu' ordered me to leave the village because people there were complaining that I was a witch," says Zengo.
In order to bring an end to this violence against women, TAMWA Director, Leila Sheikh, says the entire Tanzanian society, individuals, groups, church organisations, non-governmental organisations, religious organisations, media, community leaders and government leaders need to work tirelessly to provide every possible service that might change the trend.
Addressing a rally recently Mwanza regional commissioner, Steven Mashishanga, urged community leaders in the region to sensitise people about the need to abandon the belief in witchcraft. He warned that if witchcraft killings did not stop the government would arrest village and sub-village leaders in the area.
President Benjamin Mkapa's administration has pledged that it will step up its efforts to stem the killings of elderly women on witchcraft suspicions.
Closing a seminar, organised in Shinyanga by TAMWA to sensitise Tanzanians on the violation of the human rights of the elderly women, Deputy Minister for Home Affairs, John Mgeja said the government was devising a plan to deploy plain clothed detectives in the areas where the crime occurred to try and bring an end to the practice and to hold people accountable for the murders.
(c) 2000, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS) All rights reserved.
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