That’s the question behind the Channel 4 Dispatches programme: ‘Britain’s Witch Children’. A 10 month investigation by the programme makers claims to unearth shocking evidence of children being abused after being labelled as witches in some African churches.
Whilst VCF- the Victoria Climbié Foundation and many other organisations are aware of the practice taking place in some churches, the lack of tangible evidence makes it an increasingly difficult topic to tackle.
There are some 4,000 African churches operating in the UK. An absence of regulations in this area means that virtually anyone can set up and operate a church. Unsurprisingly, such church pastors and leaders often lack child protection training and engage in practices sometimes bordering on child abuse at an emotional and neglect level.
Even the police are unaware of just how widespread the practice actually is, blaming community reluctance to expose rogue pastors and church folk. Best estimates put the practice at dozens of cases per year. However we must not forget the influence that foreign churches and pastors may exert over believers now residing in the UK. There is anecdotal evidence of parents being pressured to remove children from the UK to be sent to societies where their ‘witchcraft’ is cruelly dealt with, and the child placed at risk of death.
Interestingly, what we at VCF have seen, is a shift in how such witchcraft is dealt with. Church leaders are aware that they can no longer engage in physical ousting of demons. Instead, there is a move towards group prayer for the child. However what constitutes as prayer for one person may constitute as abuse for another, especially if such prayer involves screaming and shouting in the face of a child who has not been consulted on what is happening to them.
But there is a vast difference between addressing a lack of child protection knowledge and training in Britain’s African churches, and calling for legislation to stop children being branded as witches. How far would such legislation go? Exactly how would it be enforced? And not to be facetious, but would we see a spike in such prosecutions in November?
As things stand, Britain already has a solid child protection framework. Where the focus needs to be, is on continuing the work that is being done within the communities: working with church leaders and pastors to raise awareness about the abuse to children where it may arise.
Introducing legislation to prevent children being labelled as witches would not go very far in our view. We are still exploring how widespread the issue is across the UK. The issue for VCF is that we must be very careful how we address witchcraft and spirit possession. We cannot attack the belief system; rather where the belief system is harmful to children we must not compromise on how we deal with it.
Within African communities, we still need to explore the significance of this issue. The belief system is ingrained, not just within the African community, but within the Asian communities, South American and to a certain extent the Middle East communities. Our approach to this problem must be geared towards addressing it across all communities. Blaming any one particular community would be very unhelpful and further contribute towards the practice being hidden.
The wider focus must be on whether that belief system is harmful to the child or not.
Many churches in the African community already do great work on safeguarding children, ensuring that their congregation is protected.
What we need now is an effective implementation of child protection policies in churches and any places where people gather to express their belief.
Rogue pastors who exploit families and accuse children of being possessed need to be identified and dealt with in the legal context of this country.