By Anuradha Nagaraj
CHENNAI, India, March 1 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A memorial dedicated to victims of witch hunts has been unveiled in India's eastern state of Odisha as part of a campaign to stamp out the branding and persecution of women as "witches", which is still widespread among poor and tribal communities.
Commissioned by the government, the memorial has a statue of a woman at the centre surrounded by plaques with the names of 55 women killed over suspicions that they were "witches", a police official said Friday.
"It is unfortunate that this problem still persists in the 21st century," said Jai Narayan Pankaj, superintendent of police in the district of Keonjhar, who designed the memorial.
"These are all innocent people. Many of the cases are not reported, which is why we have included a plaque for the unknown victim as well."
According to the National Crime Records Bureau, there were 134 cases of murders linked to witch hunts in 2016, with Odisha recording the most incidents after neighbouring Jharkhand state.
Illiteracy, superstition and a rigid caste hierarchy encourage the practice, women's rights campaigners say.
Women have been beaten, sexually assaulted, stripped naked and paraded or thrown into wells after being branded witches and blamed for everything from poor monsoon rains to illness or a sudden death, they add.
In 2013, the Odisha government brought in a law banning witch hunting, but charities working on the issue say it has had little impact in remote tribal villages.
"The statue acknowledges the problem and brings it into public consciousness," said Debendra Sutar, secretary of the Orissa Rationalist Society.
"But to eradicate it, more intensive campaigns and better facilities are needed in the villages."
An awareness campaign was also launched this week with special vans driving into villages, distributing pamphlets and making announcements from loudspeakers.
"As a young boy, I have seen the stigma and social boycott of people branded witches in my village," Pankaj told the Thomson Reuters Foundation over the phone.
"It has been eradicated in my village, but continues unabated in many areas and that is why I conceptualised the memorial. The statue immortalises the pain of every victim."
(Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj @AnuraNagaraj; Editing by Ros Russell. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.