At least 115 people, majority of whom are women have been killed in Tanzania since January for allegedly practicing witchcraft, according to a human rights group based in Dar al-Salaam.
In a report released Monday, the Legal and Human Rights Centre said 79 women were killed, mostly by violent mobs in the country after they were accused of being witches, often on the flimsy pretext of them having “red eyes”.
The human rights group said the eyes of the women most likely turn red from smoke in their kitchens during cooking, which some members of their community perceive as a sign of being witches.
The report also highlighted the fact that most of these women were middle aged or elderly.
Deep-rooted beliefs in witchcraft and other traditions that condone gender-based violence, and erosion of respect for old people have for decades triggered vicious attacks against women in the east African nation, according to rights’ campaigners.
Hellen Kijo-Bisimba, the center’s executive director, said: "This report shows gross violation of citizens’ rights, especially the right to live. It also shows gross violation of women and children rights."
Bisimba also highlighted that 479 others died at the hands of mobs since January, especially in Dar es Salaam and the southern Mbeya city; some of these victims were accused of theft and other offences.
The new report comes hardly a week after a group of women, suspected to be witches were reportedly lynched and their bodies set ablaze in the forest of Undomo village, Nzega district, in western Tabora region, according to local media reports.
Human rights groups condemn the rising wave of witch killings and complain that only a few culprits have been prosecuted, causing anxiety among elderly women living in rural villages.
"Such incidents must be strongly condemned. I agree with the police decision to look for the suspects. We still need to educate people who still harbor outdated beliefs by thinking that women are always behind witchcraft," Bisimba said.
Justa Mwaituka, an activist associated with a local women’s rights charity Kiwohede, said vigilante attacks linked to witchcraft were ever increasing in western regions, with killers often breaking into victims’ house at night.
"The killers are always well prepared and they know their target. They often don’t harm anybody else in the family except the woman they suspect of being a witch,” Mwaituka told Anadolu Agency.
Simeon Mesaki, a renowned anthropologist who has done research on African witchcraft, said witchcraft-related killings were often fueled by people’s belief that there was no other means to control witchcraft and no access to justice.
"Most people in the villages do not have faith in the justice system, that’s why they always kill whoever they suspect to be behind a bad harvest or someone else’s death," Mesaki said.