The impact of globalisation in some African countries has driven people toward financial achievements. Everywhere is competing with wanting more, hence there is intense competition around achieving economic values. But what you see is very few that make it, and many more driven by extreme poverty, and the breakdown of the family structure; the sense that people are looking more into achieving for themselves rather than the old African structure of lending support to the rest of the family. What you also have is the family moving into a nuclear structure rather than the more traditional ways, where people took their responsibilities by helping the extended family. Here, the impact may be on some of the most vulnerable in a changing society, ‘the children’ and often leads to a child being accused of being possessed or a family accused of witchcraft.
Although some of the methods used may be harmful to some of the children, and we have seen classical examples of this with Victoria, and the burning, Khyra Ishaq, the starvation, and Child B, the physical abuse, and whilst it is very hard to accept, it needs to be put into context. These methods are often used to get rid of the demon or evil spirit within the child. The demon or evil spirit is believed by those who have the belief system to be harmful to the child; that is why these methods are used to address the circumstances they are going through.
Definition of witchcraft & spirit possession includes terms such as…ritual abuse, kindoki, ndoki, child sorcerers, spirit world, the evil eye, djinns, black magic, voodoo, obeah, possession and witchcraft. These are some of the definitions linked to the African belief system, but here we have gone further than just the African context. You can see definitions from South American or Caribbean origin, and even Asian. All of these are known by the generic terms; ‘possession by evil spirits’ or ‘Witchcraft’.
It is important to put witchcraft abuse into context.
From a community perspective it is important to understand that many cultural values and beliefs are viewed as protective factors for children; parents or carers within a belief system strongly believe that the child needs to be protected from evil spirits, therefore the method to address what is wrong may be considered by the parent to be appropriate as long as it cures the child. To give you an example; a parent or carer may subject their child to fasting if they are believed to be possessed by evil spirits. Where we do have problems is where the method may be harmful to the child.
From a child protection perspective, clearly denying the child food over a period of hours/days is contrary to the laws of this country, hence the statutory duty to protect a child in such circumstances.
In essence, both are protective reactions, but it is the method used that may be detrimental to the child.
At VCF we have always been clear that in order to address these issues in a way that is effective both within the community and by professionals, the issues around child abuse linked to witchcraft and spirit possession must align to the wider safeguarding framework in this country. Often the impact of such accusations on a child falls within four defined categories; namely physical, emotional, sexual abuse and neglect.
In addressing it in this context, it allows professionals to develop better prevention methods by understanding the belief system, which will equip them with the tools to identify, at a very early stage, the indicators of such abuse. It also allows communities to continue to dialogue openly and honestly, which in turn enables us to identify their support needs. And it also gives us the ammunition, that where a child is being abused, for the relevant authorities to take necessary actions to ensure that the perpetrators of such abuse are dealt with by the legal framework in this country; a framework that allows us to develop early prevention methods that will further protect vulnerable children.
To understand how we came to be here is to understand where we came from…
We began to address this issue within the community around 2004/5 through a study funded by the Metropolitan Police in response to the Victoria Climbié public inquiry led by Lord Laming. However, more recent cases meant that we must address child abuse linked to witchcraft and spirit possession through dialogue and by raising awareness.
This work led to a government-commissioned research, and report by Eleanor Stobart, to explore accusations of child abuse linked to witchcraft and spirit possession. The research found that cases were few in number and the belief system much more widespread than the African community. In addition, a community partnership pilot was initiated and we saw the creation of Project Violet by the Metropolitan Police to address this specific issue.
Today, we continue to address this sensitive but important issue following a 3-year children’s rights initiative. This innovative initiative created by independent funder, Trust for London, and led by four community organisations with extensive expertise in this field was a brave decision indeed; to fund such a sensitive issue, to let the community lead on the work, and for that work to be independently evaluated.