Exploring gendered cultural-violence

Full title

Exploring gendered cultural-violence like witch branding/hunting and discrimination on women as an impediment to equitable development as envisaged under SDGs

General Information

Project's Coordinator:
Sandeep Chachra, ActionAid India

Research Cluster:
Partnership in development cooperation: access, accountability, and deep participation

Access, Productive Resources, Violence, Power, Witch Hunting/Branding, Sexuality, Autonomy


Women face severe violence, discrimination, and injustice when they assert rights over productive resources. Not surprisingly, it is seen that women own less of all the productive resources like land and housing. Despite many rights and laws enshrined in the constitution, the administrative units fail to implement and give equal rights to women.

The research proposal aims to reflect on one of the most common forms of violence experienced by tribal or adivasi women in India – witch-hunting and witch branding, where women are accused of possessing occult powers to harm others. A combination of superstitious beliefs, religious practices and patriarchal norms unleash lifelong suffering on women accused of witchcraft, in many cases resulting in their murders and lynchings.

The roots of this violence are not only in the specific religious or cultural beliefs and superstitions but also in the cold calculations of patriarchal mindsets, in the connivance to deprive women of land and property, to take revenge where women refuse sexual advances and to punish women for petty disputes. Poor health care facilities in rural areas and lack of sustained awareness programmes, implementation of laws and informed government intervention exacerbate the problem.

The complexity of this issue and its punitive dimensions can be found in the blurring of boundaries between protector and perpetrator. Like other mob lynching cases, it is difficult to identify the perpetrators and bring them to justice. For the survivors of this violence, the scars run deep as the perpetrators are often members of their own family, neighbourhood and community.

Apart from this, single women are more vulnerable to being branded and landed/propertied women are further at risk. In the struggle of women for survival, dignity, respect, safety and economic security, land rights play an important role. But, the social norms, customary practices, and legislations do not allow the women to have easy acces and control over land and other productive resources. In many cases, there has been an attempt to grab the land resources of women through branding them as a witch with related violence. Women perform most of the agricultural activities however they are not recognised as farmer without having ownership and control over land and the access to the credit facility and other input supports. All the above situations that depicts deprivation and an inequal position of women in the society is due to the discrimination of women, the gender-biased policy, legislations, and socio-cultural norms and practices.

Apart from this, it is evident that when women’s sexuality is not under control in a patriarchal world, efforts are made to desex her through branding her as a widow, witch, or one with a bad eye.

In the proposed research study, there would be also a systematic attempt to understand the issue and find out the structures and practices that prevent/aid women from sexual autonomy as well as economic resources and the close linkages between the two.


The aim of the research would unravel the structures that perpetuate the forms of violence to bar women’s sexuality and access to productive resources. The research would also explore the institution and power structures which perpetuate this violence and discrimination. The research would also explore the institution and power structures which promotes women’s right over productive assets. This research will also give a set of recommendations which can enhance women’s participation and access to development gains with ownership of productive resources with increased accountability of government and civil society organisations.

In particular, this research aims:

  • To study the vulnerabilities of women due to witch branding by identifying vulnerable districts having a high indigenous population, analysing the source of its manifestation, and the impact from a feminist lens
  • To capture the notion of the people and cultural practices related to the practice of witch branding
  • To assess the implementation status of the laws against Witch-Hunting and assess the effectiveness of law
  • To study the existing schemes and programmes and suggest possible linkages that can be made for ensuring dignified lives for the victims and survivors


The case of branding women as a witch and bringing related violence is in increasing trend despite the enactment of the various laws against Witch branding and hunting Act. The issue of witch branding is not solely a superstition rather it is closely related to gender discrimination and it is often used as a tool to take revenge on women. The violence on women branding them as witches is just an excuse but the manifestation is rooted in discrimination and denial of rights. People having the belief that the witch is borne with distinctive power and there is a report in the media that people got to a witch for treatment of their diseases. Women are made responsible and victimised for many issues like drought death of any person, animal, drought, crop loss, lack of water in the wells, etc. There are several factors like patriarchal mindset, ignorance, illiteracy, lack of health-seeking behaviours and health care facilities which drives people to brand the women as witch. In many cases, branding women as a witch is related to denial of property rights of women and particular categories of women like widows, single women, childless women, unmarried women are found vulnerable to such violence and often targeted for their land and property they own.

The issue of witch branding is not restricted to underdeveloped areas only. Also, it takes place in the developed areas and educated people are not free from committing such crimes. Furthermore, women with their mental health and who behave differently are also subjected to witch branding and related violence. In areas where the health care facilities are not catering to the need of the locality, people depend upon the witch doctor for treatment of the disease. Limited access to decent and universal health care service subject the people to depend upon the superstitious practices. Also, the issue of witch-hunting is very much linked to caste-based practices. The so-called upper caste people victimize the marginalised people branding them as a witch.

Since the issue is very complex and a large number of women are subjected to such violence there is a need to understand these issues and the related vulnerabilities through undertaking research and suggest actions and change in the policy and existing legislation that will ensure justice and dignified life to many such women who are victims to the deplorable practice witch-hunting.

Literature Review

More than 2,500 women have been killed in India in the past 15 years after being accused of practicing witchcraft. At least 12 states in India are recognized as breeding grounds for the witch hunt. It is in this context that witch-hunting appears to have increased, not decreased.

Witch Hunting in Assam: Practices, Causes, Legal Issues and Challenges, Jehirul Islam And Afruzara Ahmed (2017) explore the cause of witch hunting in Assam from 2006 to March 2018, over 1,700 women died in Assam due to rape, dowry, and witch-hunting. In most of the cases, witch branding takes place, where women are branded as a witch by the villagers. They force her to leave the village and live in an isolated place out of the village. Modernisation could not reach those sections of the society who are indulged in such a heinous crime. The author believes that the actual number is four times more than what has been recorded by government machinery. She believes the law must be changed to make witch-hunting a criminal offence.

Witch-Hunting: Alive and Kicking, Dr. Rakesh K Singh (2010) says witch-hunting is a medieval practice in India, according to the author. The more helpless and marginalized people are, the more vulnerable they are to manipulation by those who use superstition, power, and religion. ... Often witch-hunt also serves as a powerful tool in the hands of caste-Hindu men who want to persecute assertive Dalit and Adivasi women who might directly challenge caste hegemony or subvert local power equations.

Witchcraft and Witch Hunting in India: An Assessment, Shamsher Alam & Dr. Aditya Raj, February (2018) say that the very 'basic assumption' behind the formulation of specialized anti-witchcraft laws is flawed. It is just a check- mechanism and should not be taken as a 'sufficient response to the problems originating in the society due to evil practices, irrationality or superstition' (Mehra & Agarwal, 2016). Such legislation cannot end superstition, provide redressal to victims, or inject scientific approach and rationality in the community. These legislations also do not consider –

(a) the conditions under which such practices flourish,

(b) the gaps in the existing laws,

(c) the mode of reporting of cases,

(d) the investigation carried after reporting, and

(e) the emergent needs of the victims/survivors.

Also, the majority of the witchcraft cases are never taken to the police or court.

Witch-hunting in India? Do We Need Special Laws? Madhu Mehra, Anuja Agrawal (2016) discuss a study on witch-hunting conducted by the Partners for Law in Development (PLD) in select selects areas of Jharkhand, Bihar, and Chhattisgarh. The author said there is no large-scale authoritative data on witch-hunting in the Indian context (PLD 2013). The study was conducted in three states where special laws on witch-hunting have been passed, to create such an evidence base through which engagement with policy and related debates can be undertaken. Of the 88 victims mentioned in the FIRs, 75 were female and 13 were male. In all, the police records and the reported judgments indicated 86% of the primary targets of witch-hunting to be women. The majority of the victims in the case studies belonged to the age group of 40 to 60 years. Middle-aged, married women to be the most vulnerable to witch-hunting. Land, property, jealousy, sexual advances, and other common sources of tension between social intimates were found in many cases. The instigator(s) of the violence are generally related to the victims through kinship, community, or neighbourhood ties.

Culture of Violence or Violence of Cultures? Adivasis and Witch-hunting in Chotanagpur, Shashank S. Sinha (2018) explores the nature and structure of violence related to witch-hunting from around 1850s to the present times. It investigates questions related to the production of such violence alongside its manifestations, elements, and constituencies over a period. It also shows how such violence continues to acquire new forms and meaning. He links the rise in witch-hunting to the 'pressures of rapid ecological changes combined with the erosion of common property rights and deforestation' The violence related to witch hunts has undergone changes over a period, he says. The targeting of women only formed an external manifestation of a deep-rooted gender struggle as patriarchy in dominant Hindu society influenced indigenous cultures, he argues.

Witchcraft allegations, refugee protection and human rights: a review of the evidence, Jill Schnoebelen (2009) say that examines the link between witchcraft accusations and displacement. Accusations may cause displacement through forced exile or the personal decision to flee from the threat of harm. This brings us to a discussion of the legal aspect of the protection of refugees based on the claims of accusations of witchcraft. UNHCR workplace interactions at Kuala Lumpur and Canada, The Immigration and Refugee Board are noted, with a brief reference to cases in which people claim to be the target of witchcraft by another. Three reasons why the accusation of witchcraft occurs; Aimed at outsiders; Overcrowding or lack of mobility; Extreme conditions.

Witchcraft beliefs are violent towards women. Traditional justice mechanisms may punish women or girls for offences that are not illegal under national or international law. In Sierra Leone, chiefs are not authorized to adjudicate on witchcraft cases, for which there is no crime in national Sierra Leonean law. Chiefs have illegally carried out functions beyond their competency.

Witch Hunting: A Case of Gender Violence in the Grab of Vigilantism in India, Mohammad Tarique Iqbal (2015) says that Violence against women is deeply entrenched in our social systems. Gender violence takes multiple forms in different situations depending on the idea of gender, personal and social relationships, economic parity, and power structures. Witch-hunting is a serious issue of gender violence with the silent sanction of the patriarchal structure of society.


The present research project will make use of different tools for collecting data towards answering the research questions. A wide category of respondents would be interviewed by using different tools for data collection. The collected data would be tabulated, analysed systematically so that it would help in finding the answer for the research questions put above. The collected information would be put systematically and scientifically to depict the findings. The methodology of the research project is depicted below.

Area of the Study:

The study would be conducted in the States like Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Jharkhand, and Madhya Pradesh in India

Respondents of the Study:

  • Victims and survivors of witch branding
  • Single women, widow, never-married women
  • Traditional practitioner like Jani, Dishari, Gurmaye, bhagat, Badwa
  • Local traditional leaders
  • Representatives from the community, CSOs, CBOs, village institutions, and traditional social organisations
  • Police / Teacher / Lawyer / Media Personnel

Tools for Data Collection:

  • Case study 
  • Interview of Key Informants/Stakeholders
  • Focused Group Discussion 
  • Secondary data 
  • Media Report 
  • Cases of witch-hunting filed in Police Station

Collection of Case Study on Rights Violation due to Witch Branding: The proposed research study will include case studies from the field that comprises case studies of victims of witch hunting and captures their sufferings and vulnerabilities. At least 40 case studies of diverse nature related to the issues from each state would be collected, compiled. While collecting these case studies the required communication standard and norms like obtaining consents in written form for publicising their story and photographs would be collected.

To maintain the diversity of vulnerabilities and geographical boundary the following criteria for Selection for Case Study would be followed up:

Case studies of the victims or survivors who have faced violence.

  • Case Studies will be collected from diverse fields: Survivors or victims of diverse age groups, diverse land ownership/ownership of other productive and economic assets, diverse livelihood, and association with different social and religious groups.
  • The case studies will also cover the causes for which the women are branded as a witch (The causes might be illness, a dispute in the family and neighbours, land dispute, death, etc.)
  • Different types of cultural practices among the tribal groups.
  • The extent of labelling women as a witch: physical violence, exclusion, uprooting of tooth, etc.
  • Registered cases (FIR) in the police station

All the case studies along with the FIR related to witch branding will be compiled and the findings of the study will be documented and shared in a state-level forum. The study would be finalised and printed further incorporating the feedback from the CSOs, Government Departments, and UN Organisations.

Set of Questions for Key Informants/ Stakeholders: A set of questions will be developed basing on the objectives of the study. The set of questions will capture both quantitative and qualitative data.

Focused Group Discussion: In each sample village, a focused group discussion will be done to capture the notion, perspective, and vulnerabilities of women related to witch branding. This process of data collection will help in capturing the qualitative information from the ground. The collected qualitative information will be incorporated in the report while making the analysis of the collected data and interpretation. Thus, this will supplement the study in terms of drawing a conclusion and provide recommendations.

Analysis of secondary data and literature: As part of the research study, an analysis of secondary data will be done through collecting information from various published sources and web pages of the Government, academic institutions, research agencies, individual researchers. The analysed data will be put in the report and the data will supplement in drawing conclusion and suggest recommendations for further action towards addressing the issue of witch branding.

Analysis of Primary Data: The collected data will be put in an excel format for further compilation and analysis. The compiled data will be analysed using different statistical tools. There will be an interpretation of data for drawing conclusions and depict the vulnerable situations in the sample areas in the findings and provide further suggestions and recommendations to address the issue of witch branding. The draft report would be shared for feedback and after incorporating feedback a final report would be prepared.