University of Bolton Lecturer, Dr Sam Spence speaks out about shocking witchcraft trade

Posted on Thursday 12th October 2017
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UN Conference, Geneva

On 29th September 2017, University of Bolton Lecturer, Dr Sam Spence, returned from a trip to Geneva where she had joined a team led by Dr Charlotte Baker from Lancaster University and Gary Foxcroft, founder of the Witchcraft and Human Rights Information Network, at a UN level conference held to address the issue of trade in albino body parts for witchcraft. Dr Spence joined UN Experts, academics and members of the civil society to discuss the inhumane trade and bring light to the changes necessary to begin the end of all violence and discrimination against people born with albinism.

Dr Spence worked alongside UN Independent Expert on Albinism, Ikponwosa Ero, to ensure the real extent of the atrocity was heard at the conference. The workshop addressed large-scale human rights issues that have often slipped under the radar of governments, NGOs and academics as well as examples of human rights abuses linked to beliefs in witchcraft that ended in no prevention plan, investigation or prosecution by the judicial systems.

The gruesome trade in albino body parts is spreading across Africa, causing those who are born with albino skin to feel isolated and in constant fear, paralysed with anxiety and discriminated from society. Trade in human albino body parts has escalated during the 21st century, especially in sub-Saharan African communities, particularly among East Africans. Lack of knowledge in these countries means folktales and witchcraft related superstition replace scientific and medical facts. People with albinism have been persecuted, killed and dismembered and graves of albinos have been dug up and desecrated.

The body parts, skin, golden hair and genitals of albinos are used in “good luck potions,” and are believed to bring good luck in love, life and business. In countries where the average wage is just $10 a year, the payment of up to $75,000 for a full set of albino body parts means there are many people willing to perform extremely cruel acts of amputation and murder without thinking twice. One in twenty-thousand babies are usually born with albino skin world-wide, but this rare pigment deficiency is eight times more common in East Africa.

Albino children are abandoned, shunned and sometimes worse by their families who are afraid and ashamed. They often have no choice other than to abandon their families and homes to take refuge in camps created for their protection as albino children. This terrible behaviour is encouraged by superstitions that insinuate that having albino children living under your roof brings very bad luck and a curse, and in some areas, one albino child can create a stigma on the whole family.

Dr Sam Spence, previously a student at Bolton School Girls’ Division, recently started working at the University of Bolton after working at Lancaster University, where her research focused on contemporary witchcraft accusations and persecutions of vulnerable groups, such as women, children and persons with albinism. Her career as a lecturer began after receiving a first class LLB (Hons) Law degree and an LLM (Research) from Edge Hill University before completing a PhD in Law at Lancaster University. 

Dr Spence has previously worked with two organisations – the Witchcraft and Human Rights Information Network, where she had an internship, and the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales, where she co-authored a report on witch-killings in Nepal that was presented to the Nepalese government in 2014. These two organisations remain instrumental in challenging the issues discussed above.

Dr Sam Spence has written a book titled ‘Witchcraft Accusations and Persecutions as a Mechanism for the Marginalisation of Women.’ The book draws on feminist commentary from the disciplines of anthropology, history, law, politics and sociology in order to deal with the phenomenon of modern-day witchcraft. The book addresses the return of witchcraft beliefs to contemporary society, whilst assessing the effectiveness of international human rights law in protecting women from witchcraft accusations and persecution.

By Francesca Bury

To find out more about Dr Sam Spence’s book, please visit:

http://www.cambridgescholars.com/witchcraft-accusations-and-persecutions-as-a-mechanism-for-the-marginalisation-of-women

Interview with Dr Sam Spence:

What first sparked your interest in witchcraft and the trade of albino body parts?

I was first made aware of the issue when studying for my LLM by research degree, which was concerned with cultural violence against women in South Asia. Witchcraft was part of an issue I discussed briefly, but it was only when I began working with an NGO (Witchcraft and Human Rights Information Network) and, consequently, decided on the topic for my PhD that I explored the issue in more depth.

 

What is your book about?

The title of my book is ‘Witchcraft accusations and persecution as a mechanism for the marginalisation of women’.

It, essentially, discusses the persecution of women through witchcraft accusations within four different countries; Ghana, Papua New Guinea, India and Nepal. It looks at the issue through both a feminist and a legal lens in order to ascertain whether the current laws, both nationally and internationally, are adequate enough to tackle the issue.

 

How would you describe your book in 3-5 sentences?

My book focuses on the re-emergence of witchcraft beliefs in contemporary society, suggesting that they are being used as a tool in order to persecute and marginalise women.  It draws on feminist inter-disciplinary commentary in order to examine and challenge the phenomenon of modern day witchcraft, whilst assessing the effectiveness of human rights law in protecting women from such abuse.

 

At what point did you become aware of the discrimination against persons with Albinism taking place in many African countries?

I initially became aware of this issue whilst pursuing my PhD, but this was only discussed briefly, due to the focus of my research being on women. I began to learn more about the issue when I worked alongside the UN Independent Expert on the enjoyment of human rights by persons with albinism, Ikponwosa Ero, assisting her with her ‘Report of the Independent Expert on the enjoyment of human rights by persons with albinism’, which was presented to the Human Rights Council in March 2017.

 

What was the rationale for holding a workshop in Geneva at the United Nations on the issue of witchcraft beliefs?

The workshop was ground-breaking and was the first of its kind, both at the UN, and also on an international level. UN Experts, academics and members of civil society all came together to discuss the violence associated with witchcraft beliefs and practices and to highlight specific groups that are particularly vulnerable to witchcraft accusations and persecutions.

The workshop highlighted the various manifestations of witchcraft beliefs and practice, including accusations, stigma, and ritual killings, whilst also identifying good practices, in an attempt to tackle the issues at hand.

 

The workshop was held in Geneva, at the Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and was dynamic, in the sense that it has placed the issue onto the international radar, and we are now a step closer towards mainstreaming the issue into the UN Human Rights system.

 

What did you find most interesting at the conference in Geneva?

I think, for me, the most interesting aspect of the workshop in Geneva was the diversity within the room. You had a mixture of academics, UN experts, civil society actors and also victims of abuse, from across the globe, who had all come together with one goal in mind -  to raise awareness and understanding of the challenges concerning witchcraft accusations and persecutions and to place this discussion within the international arena. It was meeting the victims and listening to the horrific abuse suffered by them directly that was the most poignant aspect of the workshop.

 

What are some of the positive outcomes of the conference?

There were a range of good practices and recommendations that emanated from the workshop, which were comprehensive and based on a multilevel response. The principal aim is to have a UN Resolution on witchcraft and human rights in order to prompt an international response to the issue.

 

What do you aim to do via your research and via the workshop?

The principal aim of both is to raise awareness and understanding of the issues. Many people are completely unaware that the persecution of alleged witches still happens within modern day society, not to mention the high levels of brutality, torture and murders that are associated with witchcraft accusations and persecutions. The victims of these crimes are the most vulnerable in society. I have made reference already to women; however, we also have the trade in body parts of persons with albinism, the abuse and murdering of children, together with an emerging trade of trafficking, both in body parts and also in victims who are coerced into slavery and/or prostitution under the threat of Juju (black magic).

It is important to make people aware that this is happening within their own countries. We have several high profile cases in the UK. For example, the murder of 8 year old Victoria Climbie (2000), the murder of 6 year old “Adam” known as the torso in the Thames (2001) and 15 year old Kristy Bamu, who was tortured and murdered in 2010. These were all witchcraft related cases and were some of the most horrific levels of child abuse ever noted, as documented within subsequent reports on the issue.

By raising awareness and understanding of these issues, we can begin to challenge them and, hopefully, make a difference.