Since colonial days, the Guyana government would jail anyone known or accused of practising witchcraft, voodoo and obeah. It is now considering scrapping these laws, saying that they are no longer relevant.
Witchcraft, voodoo and obeah have been a part of the Caribbean fabric of life since the Trans Atlantic Slave trade and the arrival of enslaved Africans in the region. However, these practices and other forms of religion and spirituality were banned by slave owners because of the supposed power it had over them.
Obeah, an offshoot of voodoo, involves the harnessing of spiritual powers and forces for personal use. The people would approach an elder called an Obeah man, who would advise them on matters of health, work, domestic life, money and romance. Some practitioners were required to wear charms and devices to protect them from evil.
People would be punished for these and they had to practice them in secret. Over time, the narrative surrounding witchcraft, voodoo and obeah have been negative, usually associated with evil as compared to the western religions like Catholicism.
The narrative remained the same under the British colonial government, which placed laws banning the practices and arresting any person accused of the crime.
Decriminalisation will no longer see the imprisonment of practitioners.
Also decriminalised in the country are mandatory fines and jail terms for people attempting suicide, as well as charges relating to roguery and vagabondage.
“In such cases, decriminalising the behaviour and dealing with it outside the criminal law has not resulted in any negative impact on public safety. Other offences may no longer warrant the imposition of a sentence of imprisonment, and may now be dealt with by way of fine or other non-custodial sanctions,” Attorney General Basil Williams said.
The country hopes to look at other alternative forms of punishment such as bail, seizure of travel documents, periodic reporting to police or other authorities, electronic monitoring or curfews, and conditional and suspended sentences, according to a statement from the ministry of legal affairs.
Just recently, Senegal started discussions on legalising witchcraft as a way to ease the burden on health care facilities in the country. The practice, which was punishable by imprisonment, has been a part of the culture so deep that even top officials and educated folks have been seen visiting witch doctors for ‘treatment’.