Deadly Superstitions

In Nepal’s mountains old sentiments and new disadvantages are keeping the faith in witches alive. For accused women, the consequences can be fatal.

Witch accusations and persecutions continue to be a serious form of gender-based violence in the 21st century in Nepal. Centuries-old superstitious beliefs are deep-rooted in the social and cultural structures of society. Beliefs in witchcraft often lead to physical and psychological violence. Most of the victims are poor, single or marginalized women who live in rural environments. Particularly in Dalit.

One example of superstition’s prevalence is the Ghost Festival. It takes place annually on the banks of the Kamala River, in the Dhanusha and Siraha districts of Nepal. Thousands of pilgrims are visiting accompanied by their dhamis(shamans), who claim to have the power to eradicate misfortunes such as failing crops, illness, or family difficulties.

Shamans called jhakaris or dhamis are traditional healers who are believed to cure sickness caused by evil spirits, thanks to their ability to communicate with spirits and gods. They practice exorcism and chant magical incantations, and in some cases use traditional herbs and medicinal techniques to cure those who visit them. Some shamans refer their patients to doctors if they see that the sickness needs modern medical treatment.

However, many shamans also resort to violent exorcism and are responsible for identifying someone as a
witch. This happens particularly often in Nepali villages with limited access to modern healthcare facilities,
causing hurt, trauma or loss of life.

In the region superstitious beliefs correlate with structural injustices, such as gender discrimination,
access to health services, education, economic opportunities and legal advice.

The Informal Sector Service Center (INSEC) Nepal, a non-governmental organization working for the protection and promotion of human rights, documented 236 cases of witch accusation with physical assault between 2016 and 2020. Amongst the documented cases were five cases that led to deaths. Because of a lack of knowledge, education, and power structures many such cases remain undocumented in Nepal.

While the cultural elements of shamanic practice are precious, it is even more important to raise awareness of unethical practices among shamans in order to eradicate violence, witch accusations and persecution. This photo essay illustrates this dire need to raise awareness both, at the grassroots and at the national level. It documents the situations of the accused women and shows that things need to change. It was inspired by the news of Parbati Devi Chaudhary’s death who was beaten to death by a group of neighbors in the remote village of Supauli, in the Parsa district of Nepal.

At the time of my visit, the daughter of the killed woman, Rajpati Devi Chaudhary, was still living in isolation and terror in the village.

On 20. March 2009, Kalli Kumari B. K., a 50 year-old Dalit woman, was accused of practicing witchcraft by a group of villagers that was led by the local school’s headmistress. She was beaten and forced to eat her own excreta in public. “I accepted that I am witch when they took blades out to chop my breasts. I had no other choice at that time”. She remembers the days as black day of her life. Lalitpur, Nepal.
Pampha Maggriti, 30, a Dalit woman, was severely beaten when she tried to help another woman, Chanamati Maggrati, who was accused of being a witch and was attacked by her neighbor. Dhading, Nepal.
Sunkesi Chaudhary shows a photo of her mother, Parvati Devi Chaudhary, who was beaten to death at midnight on 16 August 2013. She was 45 years old. That night, Parbati and three other women were identified as witches by a dhami that a a neighbor had brought in to the village. Supauli, Parsa, Nepal.
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ArtIQulate is a publication associated with the Adenauer Fellowship, a scholarship programme by the Media Programme Asia, Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung Ltd.
About the author

Nabin Baral

Alumni, Diploma in Photojournalism, Asian Center for Journalism

Nabin Baral is a documentary photographer and visual storyteller based in Kathmandu, Nepal. His work focuses on the environment, mountains, Nepali people, and social issues. Nabin is a recipient of the “Artist Grant 2020” provided by the British Council in Nepal. In 2016, his photo work “Victim of Superstition” was awarded the first prize in Nepal’s biggest photo contest organized by the Photojournalist Club Nepal, in the category “Photo Story”.

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