NEW MEMORIAL in India commemorates ''witch'' hunt victims. 

A memorial dedicated to victims of  witch hunts  has been unveiled in India's eastern state of  Odisha as part of 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 plaque with names  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 Keonjohar, 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 victims as well.''

According to National Crime Records Bureau, there were  134 cases of murders linked to witch hunts in 2016, with Odisha recording the most incidents after neighboring Jharkland state.

illiteracy, superstition and 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 sudden death, they add.

In 2013, the Odisha government brought in a law banning witch hinting, but charities working on the issue say it has had little impact in remote tribal villages.

''The state 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 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 of a social boycott of people branded witches in my village,'' Pankaj told the Thomson Reuters Foundations over the phone.

''It has been eradicated in my village, but continues unabated  in many areas and that is why I conceptualized the memorial. The stone immortalises the pains of every victim.''


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