Witchcraft accusations against children in Africa
Recent reports by UNICEF, UNHCR, Save The Children and Human Rights Watch have also highlighted the violence and abuse towards children accused of witchcraft in Africa. Accusations of witchcraft in Africa are a very serious matter as the witch is culturally understood to be the epitome of evil and the cause of all misfortune, disease and death. Consequently, the witch is the most hated person in African society and subjected to punishment, torture and even death.
The victims of witchcraft accusations in African societies have usually been the elderly, the disabled, albinos and anyone who was considered different. In recent years due to the impact of rapid urbanisation, economic decline, as well as the HIV/AIDS pandemic, children have become more and more the victims of witchcraft accusations, especially orphans. Child victims of witchcraft accusations are more vulnerable than adult victims as they cannot defend themselves as they are confronted with physical and psychological abuse from their family and community.
Children accused of witchcraft may be subjected to violent exorcism rituals by African Pentecostal-Charismatic pastors who mix Christianity with African witchcraft beliefs. Such exorcism may include incarceration, starvation and being made to drink hazardous substances. In other cases accused children are expelled and end up living on the streets, are trafficked and in some instances they are killed.
In Angola, many orphaned children are accused of witchcraft and demonic possession by relatives in order to justify not providing for them. Various methods are employed: starvation, beating, unknown substances rubbed into their eyes or being chained or tied up.
In the Gambia, about 1,000 people accused of being witches were locked in detention centers in March 2009. They were forced to drink a dangerous hallucinogenic potion, according to Amnesty International.
In Nigeria, some Pentecostal pastors have incorporated African witchcraft beliefs into their brand of Christianity resulting in a campaign of violence against young Nigerians. Children and babies branded as evil are being abused, abandoned and even murdered. The preachers make money out of the fear, providing costly exorcism services of their parents and their communities.
In the Nigerian states of Akwa Ibom and Cross River about 15,000 children were branded as witches and most of them end up abandoned and abused on the streets. A documentary aired on Channel 4 and BBC, Saving Africa's Witch Children, shows the work of Gary Foxcroft and Stepping Stones Nigeria in addressing these abuses.
In Sierra Leone, sick infants tend to have better survival-rates due to witchhunts: "the effect of the witch cleansing probably lasts for years in the sense that mothers are predisposed to tend their babies with more hopefulness and real concern. Therefore many babies who, before the arrival of the witchfinder, might have been saved if the mothers had had the heart and will to stop at nothing to tend their babies, will now survive precisely because they will receive the best attention, as the mothers now believe that the remaining children are free of witchcraft. So there is a reduction in the infant mortality rate in the years immediately following the witchcleansing movement".
In Congo, it is estimated that there are 25,000 homeless children living on the streets of the capital city. Of these, 60% were expelled from their homes because of allegations of witchcraft. Accusations of witchcraft is the only justifiable reason for the refusal to house a family member, no matter how distant the relation.
In Ethiopia, Mingi is the traditional belief among the Omotic-speaking Karo and Hamar tribes in southern Ethiopia that adults and children with physical abnormalities are ritually impure. The latter are believed to exert an evil influence upon others, so disabled infants have traditionally been disposed of without a proper burial. Children are killed by forced permanent separation from the tribe by being left alone in the jungle or by drowning in the river.
Interventions until now have been limited and localised such as the safe houses run by Stepping Stones Nigeria and their partners in Akwa Ibom state in Nigeria, by Bishop Emilio Sumbelelo of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Angola, and by Africa Outreach in Malawi. Nevertheless, global awareness of the problem of child witchcraft accusations in Africa is growing as evidenced by the above-mentioned UNICEF and UNHCR reports. It is likely that increased global awareness of the problem of child witchcraft accusations in Africa will eventually lead to more initiatives to assist its victims. Nevertheless, it is equally important to address the underlying socio-economic, political and environmental factors that contribute to this problem.
In the meantime the general population in countries where child witchcraft beliefs are prevalent need to be made aware that the torture and killing of children is unacceptable. This can be done by means of grass-roots awareness and prevention campaigns, conferences and theological education with the support of religious leaders, who need to be engaged and become part of the solution and not part of the problem. The judiciary, human rights organizations, civil society, and local and national governments can also aid this.
Spread to the UK
Research by Dr Leo Ruickbie has shown that the problem of child witchcraft accusations is spreading from Africa to areas with African immigrant populations. In some cases this has led to ritualised abuse and even murder, particularly in the UK with such high-profile cases as that of Kristy Bamu in 2010.
- Persecution of people with albinism, Africa
- Child sacrifice in Uganda
- Medicine murder, African traditional medicine
- Witch hunt
- West African Vodun
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