GENEVA (Reuters) - Murder and persecution of women and children accused of being witches is spreading around the world and destroying the lives of millions of people, experts said Wednesday.
The experts -- United Nations officials, civil society representatives from affected countries and non-governmental organization (NGO) specialists working on the issue -- urged governments to acknowledge the extent of the persecution.
"This is becoming an international problem -- it is a form of persecution and violence that is spreading around the globe," Jeff Crisp of the U.N.'s refugee agency UNHCR told a seminar organized by human rights officials of the world body.
Aides to U.N. special investigators on women's rights and on summary executions said killings and violence against alleged witch women -- often elderly people -- were becoming common events in countries ranging from South Africa to India.
And community workers from Nepal and Papua New Guinea told the seminar, on the fringes of a session of the U.N.'s 47-member Human Rights Council, that "witch-hunting" was now common, both in rural communities and larger population centres.
Gary Foxcroft of British-based charity Stepping Stones- Nigeria said children living homeless on the streets in many countries had been driven out by families or communities because they were suspected of being witches.
But increasingly children suspected of witchcraft -- usually on the basis of vague accusations -- were being killed because their parents feared they would have to take them back if the authorities identified them.
Ulrich Garms from the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay told the seminar that there were no reliable statistics on how many women and child "witches" were killed annually around the globe.
Other U.N. officials tracking the problem said deaths ran into at least tens of thousands, and beatings, deprivation of property and banishment and isolation from community life meant victims of "witch frenzy" ran into millions.
Speakers at the seminar agreed that poverty, exacerbated by the current world economic crisis, often lay behind the phenomenon as people sought to find scapegoats for their misfortunes and the illnesses they suffered.
But some preachers of major religions and governments were also responsible, they said.