Award-winning UK film on witch-hunts in Zambia hoped to curb attacks on women

"Bringing these stories to light can help survivors, civil society and communities to hold their government and duty bearers to account"

An award-winning British film about witch-hunts in Zambia could play an important role in curbing violence against women if translated into local languages and distributed widely, according to human rights campaigners.

The film “I Am Not A Witch” – which tells the story of an eight-year-old Zambian girl accused of being a witch – was named the most outstanding debut film on Sunday at Britain’s top film awards, the BAFTAs.

Welsh-Zambian director Rungano Nyoni spent a month in a so-called “witch camp” in Ghana to research the low budget film about a girl banished from her village to stay with other women also branded as witches.

Campaigners said films about often overlooked abuse of women – such as female genital mutilation and child marriage – helped raise awareness about the reality of these practices and could help bust myths and false narratives spanning decades.

“Films on under reported or little known gender abuses are very important as they can bring these often hidden issues to the public’s attention and force them into the light,” said Shelby Quast, director of the charity Equality Now.

“Bringing these stories to light can help survivors, civil society and communities to hold their government and duty bearers to account.”

Millions of women and girls in countries ranging from India and Pakistan to Tanzania, Kenya and Nigeria are still branded witches – often by their relatives or neighbours – in a bid to usurp their land or inheritance, say campaigners.

In many cases, victims are elderly widowed women who are humiliated, beaten, stripped and ostracised from their communities. Sometimes they are lynched.

Children are also targeted with their parents and communities misled into battering, maiming, drowning, burning and abandoning them.

“In the African context, witch branding usually leads to alienation of women from the community and this denies her rights to own land or even inherit it and reduces her ability to fend for herself,” said ActionAid Kenya’s Philip Kilonzo.

“It is increasingly becoming a practice in some communities to lynch witches which leads to further violation of their rights by denying them the right to life.”

Activists said it was key that films addressing these issues were seen where it mattered most.

“The use of films can be limiting in challenging such forms of violence against women as films speak to the privileged in the society, yet issues such as witch branding happen in the very remote rural areas and informal settlements in urban areas,” said Makena Mwobobia, ActionAid Kenya’s Head of Policy.

“However, if translated into the local languages, the same films can be used to speak to the emotions and the core of the community and hence touch on their individual character for behavioural change.”

Nita Bhalla
Nita Bhalla

This article was written by Nita Bhalla who covers disasters and conflicts, development, womens rights, climate change and governance for the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

She is a former Reuters political and general news correspondent and has worked in India, east and southern Africa and the Indian Ocean region.

Nita started her career in 1999 with the BBC in Ethiopia.

The article was edited by Belinda Goldsmith for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience.