Janet Lord Quoted in a letter to the International New York Times - Witchcraft and Other Stigmas

July 17, 2014

- A letter to the International New York Times

Re "Witch hunting, 21st-century style (Review, July 5-6): Mitch Horowitz, in discussing the phenomenon of 21st-century witchcraft, notes that this "surge suggest forces other than economic resentment or ancient superstition." His article emphasizes the prevalence of witch hunting in Africa, while acknowledging in passing the practice elsewhere. Ignored altogether is the fact that this is one, among many, abhorrent practices perpetrated against individuals with a variety of identity characteristics sharing in common stigmatization and extreme marginalization. Both historically and contemporaneously, branding individuals as witches very often coincides with perceived or actual lesbian, disability, transgender, intersex or some other stigmatizing status. Certainly, in some African communities, perception of demonic possession (e.g., seizures “caused” by demonic possession or persons with albinism perceived to have magical body parts) leading to violence and abuse does occur.

And yet stigma leading to egregious human rights violations, including those linked to witchcraft, is not an African phenomenon; it is universal. In developed countries, it takes the form of violent school bullying, aversive therapy administered to children with autism, and the forced sterilization of women with disabilities, among other practices.

Mr. Horowitz’s prescription — the adoption of hate crime legislation — does not offer a holistic response. These violations form part of a broader human rights landscape and require a transformation of the social and cultural contexts wherever such abuses occur.

Janet E. Lord, Baltimore

The writer is a researcher at the Harvard Law School Project on Disability and at the Burton Blatt Institute at Syracuse University.