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Use human rights law to protect elderly lynching victims, Kenya advised

22 October 2021 - 21:10

By Janet Sankale

Janet.sankale@jfjustice.net

The Kenyan government has been asked to sign, ratify, and implement an international human rights treaty to help protect elderly people who are increasingly being targeted for lynching and other forms of violence with the ultimate aim of dispossessing them and their families.

A consortium of 22 civil society organisations said the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) on the Rights of Older Persons in Africa provides for the protection of the property, land, and inheritance rights of older women.

The protocol in Article 8 prohibits abuse from harmful traditional practices and specifically calls on governments, in Article 8(2), to “take all necessary measures to eliminate harmful traditional practices, including witchcraft accusations, which affect the welfare, health, life, and dignity of older people, particularly older women”.

Representatives of the organisations, who spoke at Fairview Hotel, Nairobi, Kenya, during celebrations to mark the 40th anniversary of the adoption of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, condemned the lynching of four older women in Kisii County on October 17, 2021.

They termed the killings as “abominable, discriminatory, unjust, dehumanising, and deeply oppressive”, and expressed concern that the trend largely targeted old and poor widows in Gusii. The four women from Bomokona village in Marani were lynched on allegations that they had bewitched a Form Four student who, according to police records, was unable to speak.

“This barbaric behavior is usually sanctioned by some members of the communities where these acts are rampant. There are many reports of very close family members (including women) colluding to instigate this violence, harass, intimidate, maim, and even murder widows by hacking them to pieces and/or burning them alive,” they said in a statement released at a press conference on Thursday, October 21, 2021.

They added that most of the cases show a connection between the violent acts and resource conflicts, especially land issues, and termed the killings as “driven by greed, selfishness, misogyny, and deeply held patriarchal assumptions and values that devalue girls’ and women’s lives”.

They said it was telling that one of the latest “witch burning” victims had buried her husband just two weeks before.

They explained that most of the approximately six victims lynched in Gusii every month are widows whose accusers are relatives from the families of their deceased husbands. The accusations are traceable to land scarcity, greed, selfishness, and misogyny, and are emboldened by the community’s attitude and social stigma associated with witchcraft.

“Consequences of lynching include the stigmatisation of the family of the ‘witch’ and forcible removal of the ‘witch’s’ family from the area, only for the accusers to appropriate for themselves the land,” the statement said.

The consortium demanded that the National Police Service undertake a thorough and speedy investigation into the latest killings and asked the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions to prosecute the people found to have been involved.

The organisations expressed concern that some older people suffering from dementia, Alzheimer’s, or Parkinson’s disease had been accused of practising witchcraft as a precursor to their being lynched and their property illegally acquired.

They asked the Cabinet secretary for Health to create awareness on mental illnesses affecting older persons to stem the accompanying stigma.

The National Land Commission was urged to investigate and resolve all cases of land disputes and other property injustices in Gusii, Kilifi, and other places, where older people have been murdered and their property illegally taken away from their surviving spouses and families.

They called on leaders from those areas to courageously speak out against such practices and work with community members, civil society groups, government officials, and other partners to bring about change in attitudes.

The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights is an international instrument that is intended to promote and protect human rights and basic freedoms on the African continent. In 1979, the Assembly of Heads of State and Government of the then Organisation of African Unity (OAU), which later became the African Union (AU), adopted a resolution calling for the creation of a committee of experts to draft continent-wide human rights instruments similar to those that existed in Europe and America.

The committee produced a draft that was unanimously approved at the OAU’s 1981 assembly.

According to Article 63, the ACHPR came into effect on October 21, 1986. This date is celebrated annually as the African Human Rights Day.

By virtue of Article 30 of the African Charter, the ACHPR was established as an enforcement mechanism for the charter. It is composed of 11 commissioners, nationals of the member states of the AU, elected in their individual capacity. Its headquarters is in Banjul, The Gambia.

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