10th August: World Day against Witch Hunts
In some places, “witches” still bear the blame for preventing pregnancies and for infant death
10th August is a Wednesday this year – not any particularly special day, at first glance. It is the Catholic feast day of the saints Astrid, Eric, Lawrence and Tiburtius, all martyrs. Calendar events can also be found for this day: the opening of the Natural History Museum in Vienna (1889); the entry of the spacecraft Magellan into Venus’ orbit (1990); the introduction of a second football league for the 1974 football season.
The Dutch physician and feminist Aletta Jacobs also died on 10th August (1929). Her observations and experiences made her a champion of a woman’s right to herself decide on the number of children she has. “During my hospital work, I became an eyewitness to the catastrophic effects that frequent pregnancies can have on a woman’s life. In long conversations, many patients have made it clear to me that they cannot prevent further pregnancies if sexual abstinence is their only option for contraception. I have spent days looking for solutions.” For this, she was bullied, persecuted and threatened, but those same critics came to her in secret to be instructed in the methods of family planning. Calvinist priests thundered against contraception from the pulpit, but brought their wives to Jacob’s practice.
We have not yet got past the belief in witches
Roughly 100 years later, on 10th August 2020, the World Day against Witch Hunts was introduced because women in 41 countries around the globe, mostly in Africa, Oceania and Latin America, still get accused of witchcraft and are captured, tortured, and even burned and killed.
One feels as though one has been taken back to the times of the book Hammer of Witches, published in 1486 by the German Dominican, theologian and inquisitor Heinrich Kramer. For example, when it states:
“that in various ways midwife sorceresses kill the fetuses in the womb and cause miscarriages, and when they do not do this, they offer the new-borns to demons” (The Hammer of Witches, translated by Christopher Mackay, Cambridge 2009, p. 211).
Or: “… as penitent sorceresses have often related to us and to others, saying, ‘No one harms the Catholic faith more than do midwives.’ In instances where they do not kill children, they take the baby out of the room as if to do something, and raising them up in the air they offer them to the demons.” (ibid., p. 212) “For the Devil knows that such children are excluded from entering the Kingdom of Heaven because of the penalty of loss or original sin.” (ibid., p. 368)
Two years earlier, on 5th December 1484, Pope Innocent VIII had signed his papal bull on witchcraft, Summis desiderantes affectibus, to bar contraception. He opposed “many persons … [who,] by their incantations, charms, and conjurings, … cause to perish the offspring of women … and hinder men from begetting and women from conceiving, and prevent all consummation of marriage …” (Translation from George Lincoln Burr, The Witch Persecutions (1907) cited in: Alan Charles Kors and Edward Peters, Witchcraft in Europe, 400–1700: A Documentary History, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia 2001), 177–180).
The reason for declaring this day of remembrance was the martyrdom of a woman from Papua New Guinea, who, on 10th August 2012, was accused of being a “witch” by residents of her village and was tortured for days. She survived the severe mistreatment, was able to escape, and was brought to safety with the help of the Swiss nun Sister Lorena Jenal. In order to draw attention to the devastating consequences of witch hunts, to connect experts and to pool initiatives, the International Catholic Mission Society missio (Internationales Katholisches Missionswerk missio) chose this day to be World Day against Witch Hunts.
More about Aletta Jacobs can be found on the following pages on our site:
Her book Memories – My Life as an International Leader in Health, Suffrage, and Peace: https://www.muvs.org/de/bib/document/details/b1262