Accusations of child witchcraft are on the rise in sub-Saharan Africa – spurred on by urbanization, poverty, conflict and fragmenting communities, creating a “multi-crisis” for already vulnerable children.
A wide spectrum of children are at risk, including orphans, street-children, albinos, those with physical disabilities or abnormalities such as autism, those with aggressive or solitary temperaments, children who are unusually gifted; those who were born prematurely or in unusual positions, and twins.
Broadly-speaking, the notion of sorcery can be translated as the ability to harm someone using “mystical power”.
Most of the accused are boys and most aged 8-14, says the report, Children Accused of Witchcraft; an anthropological study of contemporary practices in West Africa
Some of the countries with the highest prevalence rates include Angola, Benin, Cameroon, Central African Republic (CAR), Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Nigeria, according to the report.
No comprehensive study has been undertaken to indicate the extent of the phenomenon, says Joachim Theis, UNICEF’s child protection adviser in West Africa. However, according to discrete studies, “thousands” of children have been accused of witchcraft and subsequently thrown out of their homes in Kinshasa and Lubumbashi in the DRC; Mbanza Kongo capital of Zaire Province, Uige and Luanda in northern Angola; and a large number in Akwa Ibom state in southeastern Nigeria.
Accused children end up being attacked, burned, beaten, and sometimes killed, according to the researchers. Exorcisms can include forcing children to fast; pouring petrol into children’s eyes or ears, beatings and being forced to swallow various substances. Many confessions are extracted under duress or violence, says the report.
Contrary to wide-held perceptions in the West, child witchcraft in Africa is not an ancient “African tradition” but a relatively modern phenomenon dating back 10-20 years, says report author Aleksandra Cimpric. Before this, elderly people, and particularly women, tended to be accused.
The increase in accusations seems partly associated with the growing economic burden of raising children, linked to urbanization, separation of families and the weakening of family structures, says UNICEF’s Theis; it is reinforced by the emergence of Pentecostal or revivalist churches in many of the affected countries.
Exploitative pastor-prophets claiming to be able to identify witches and offering exorcisms provide additional legitimization for witchcraft accusations. Their lucrative vocation complements the work of traditional healers, who also fight against the malevolent forces of the “other world”, the report noted. In a televised case in Nigeria, “Bishop” Sunday Ulup Ay in Akwa Ibom state in the southeast made a personal fortune through exorcisms, charging $261 per child. He has since been arrested.
Sorcery in Africa is not a uniform belief, says Theis. “It has spiritual, economic and social drivers… It gets blurred with all sorts of other beliefs, but it cannot always be put into one box.”
Child protection agencies cannot try to shape beliefs in witchcraft but must take a strict child protection approach to combat accusations, says Theis: “We’re not trying to eradicate a belief in witchcraft that we cannot necessarily understand. But we are saying violence and abuse against children is wrong and must stop, and we must use every method to stop it.”
He continued: “We can use some of the same methods we’ve already developed to address other forms of violence and abuse against children.” Many accused children are abandoned street children and require the same kind of rehabilitation and reintegration as they do, he said.
Some of the methods proven to work – as played out in Katanga Province, in southern DRC – include raising awareness among (and by) communities; negotiating with families, children and religious leaders on individual cases; finding allies in local churches who can help spread the word; providing services for vulnerable children; and enforcing the law; according to UNICEF.
Putting in place better basic services to cater for children’s needs and helping to strengthen the protective structure of the family can also reduce the risks associated with witchcraft accusations, says the report.
Rather than legislation to protect children, in Cameroon, Chad and Gabon practicing witchcraft is outlawed, leading to many child witchcraft cases being brought to the family courts. Many of the children end up in prison or even exile.
What is needed in this situation would be a law that protects children against accusation of child witchcraft. It would be hard to change the general attitudes of the African people. Nevertheless, it is very necessary to raise awareness among families, legal professionals and doctors to change the legislation. Mobilizing all of this can have a positive impact… Witchcraft beliefs were deeply entrenched in Western countries for many years and it took a long very time to disappear.”