“They said a witch had put a curse on me. They had to remove it. Had they not brought me to the nearest health clinic, however, I could have died,” the 45-year old said.
Such stories are not uncommon, a largely tribal society where a longstanding traditional belief in witchcraft continues to undermine healthcare in the country.
People routinely delay seeking proper medical care when they attribute their sickness or illness to witchcraft rather than natural causes. At that point, however, it can be too late.
Whether it’s diarrhoea, diabetes or heart attacks, people think witchcraft is involved and are not open to a medical explanation. This is the biggest problem and one deeply entrenched in people’s mind.
A Pervasive Belief
Majority of the rural inhabitants believe in witchcraft, including many educated urban Pakistanis.
When people get sick they don’t think in terms of the medical cause, but rather who is to blame.
The problem is a complex one, further compounded by the current state of Pakistan’s deteriorating healthcare system.
Less than 50 percent of the population has access to health care; a figure particularly pronounced in rural areas where 65% of the population lives, and residents are largely dependent on BHUs – the mainstay of Pakistan’s healthcare delivery, comprising more than 70 percent of all health facilities – many of which have fallen into disrepair or closed.
Most of the BHUs are closed, authorities confirm, due to shortages in funding, staff, or other resources.
Where there are no aid posts, village health volunteers, village birth attendants and medicine women provide basic first aid and health education in villages and homes.
All this in a country where babies, children and mothers continue to die in large numbers across the nation from preventable causes, while poor drug distribution and Pakistan’s largely rural and remote population find it particularly difficult and expensive to access basic medical services.
Compounding the problem, is the inability of health staff to properly diagnose the cause of a specific illness or ailment, and convey that message effectively to patients and their families, a fact which can further strengthen people’s traditional beliefs as to why a specific illness or situation occurred.
When delivering health messages, people need to recognize that such beliefs exist and do impact people’s understanding of health.
Doctors and nurses unable to properly diagnose a specific illness or offer treatment options will routinely suggest to patients and their families that their sickness might be sickness from the village which today serves as a code word for illness of magical origin stemming from social disharmony in the village, suggesting that someone with a grudge had caused the sickness by sorcery or witchcraft.
However, speaking about Jadoo by default essentially creates two categories of sickness in the minds of people: ordinary sickness, which can be cured by modern medicine, and Jadoo sickness, which can only cured by removing or countering a curse.
Violence Against Women
When access to a basic human right – the right to health – is limited, communities will look for alternative ways of addressing their health needs. There are numerous cases in which illness or death in a community has led to accusations of sorcery and witchcraft.
It’s a big problem. It’s part of peoples’ culture and belief and hence difficult to address.