Protecting child 'witches' in Africa

Beliefs in witchcraft and other occult forces are widespread in Africa, as they are in many other parts of the world. Animist beliefs consider death, disease, crop failure and other disasters not as natural occurrences, but as the result of the activities of supernatural powers. Families commonly consult traditional healers who divine the cause of the calamity. In some cultures, spirits are held responsible, while in others, individuals are identified as witches and blamed for the misfortune. Usually old and marginalized persons are scapegoated, but in recent years there have been increased reports of children, even toddlers, being accused of witchcraft in parts of Africa. Once accused of sorcery, children are forced to admit to being witches and to reveal the name of the "witch" that has passed on the evil power to them.

In the ensuing process of healing and restoring balance in the community, children accused of witchcraft are beaten, cut, burned, and sometimes killed. Many are chased from their communities. Stigmatized and unable to return to their families, they end up abandoned, on the streets of big cities. Kinshasa (capital of the DR Congo) alone harbours more than 20,000 street children who have been accused of witchcraft. In the Central African Republic it is an offence to be a "witch" and prisons are full of children and adults accused of sorcery.

Claire was only 13 years old when she was accused by her brother of being a witch, beaten and tortured by members of her community, and brought to the police station. In the court of Mbaïki (a little town a hundred km from Bangui) she confessed to being a witch and was found guilty, sentenced to three years in prison. Instead of living in the main prison, she was sent to work at one of the guard's home. She was quickly suspected of practicing witchcraft and sent back to prison. Since the main prosecutor did not consider the prison to be a place for a child, she was sent to a nearby Catholic mission. Two years later, she was accused of witchcraft once again – this time by a novice in the mission who claimed that Claire was trying to devour her heart. She was brought back to prison.

Children accused of witchcraft number in the thousands in the DR Congo, the Central African Republic, southern Nigeria, and parts of Angola. Anthropologists have identified the combination of crises as the underlying cause for the epidemics of witchcraft accusations against children. Economic hardship, conflict, urbanization, displacement, family breakdown and HIV/AIDS have spread insecurity in large parts of Central Africa and have profoundly undermined many communities. In parallel, revivalist and Pentecostal churches have proliferated in many parts of Africa, offering spiritual stability in times of uncertainty.

Some of these churches, run by unscrupulous preachers and self-appointed prophets, have seized upon the fears of the population and are offering exorcism services at exorbitant costs. These rituals subject children to further violence and abuse and have become a lucrative business for some pastors. In Nigeria's Akwa Ibom State in the Niger delta, the explosion of witchcraft accusations against children have been traced back to a film produced by a prominent priestess, which has fuelled popular beliefs in child witchcraft.

At the dawn of African independence it was widely assumed by modern elites and by development agencies that formal education, media, monotheistic religions, economic development and democratic political systems would sweep away traditional African beliefs. Instead, as the case of witchcraft accusations against children shows, traditions are being reinvented and adapted to the challenges and insecurities of a globalised world.

Since the phenomenon of accusing children of witchcraft emerged only within the last 10-20 years (and in Nigeria more recently), there is hope that it has not yet become deeply entrenched. Even if the belief in witchcraft continues, Unicef believes it is no justification for the abuse of children's rights.

From a child protection perspective, witchcraft accusations against children are a form of child abuse. Each "outbreak" of witchcraft accusations has to be studied in order to understand its origins and the forces and interests in society that drive it. Raising public awareness is an important part of prevention, as is the mobilization of church groups, the police and the justice system, as well as traditional healers to take decisive action against the maltreatment of children. Effective support for abused and abandoned children requires functioning child protection systems that ensure children's access to psycho-social, health and educational services, and to justice.

Joachim Theis, child protection advisor, UNICEF regional office for West and Central Africa, Dakar, Senegal.