Infobrief on “Child Witch Accusations” (CWA)
This information briefing is for persons working in the press, radio, television, and other media outlets who are seeking a deeper insight into the phenomenon of accusations of witchcraft against children — including the contexts in which these accusations arise, and the consequential impact for the child, the immediate family, and the wider community.
Increasingly, the subject of child witch accusations (CWA) is attracting the attention of the world’s media as different agencies seek to raise awareness of this issue. As with any topic in the media, it is crucial that reporting on this subject seeks to be well–informed, unbiased, factual, and accurate.
This is why SCWA* « footnote » has produced this summarised information briefing for media personnel. Our hope is that it may lead to a broader and deeper insight into of some of the roots of CWA, the realities of what these children face, and emerging responses to this issue.
Some new studies are being published (for example: in the « On Knowing Humanity Journal ») but there is a lack of research on the topic, and by its nature the issue is one that tends to be hidden. Answers to many initial enquiry questions on this topic can be found on SCWA’s website here: « faq short » « faq long ». We first encourage media personnel to read through these before contacting the Chair of SCWA.
We hope this information briefing will help to inform the approach of media agencies to the subject of child witch accusations, and encourage balanced and carefully considered reporting of this complex phenomenon. And among the many horror stories of the children who suffer this stigma and abuse, we hope that good news can be found.
- « goto » Acknowledging global realities — it is not about a particular demographic or locality or religion.
- « goto » Understanding worldviews — it is not simply superstition.
- « goto » Children accused of being witches — it has not always been this way.
- « goto » Children accused: who are they?
- « goto » Children accused: what happens to them?
- « goto » Christian churches and church leaders — not all are part of the problem, many are part of the solution.
- « goto » Effective responses — it is not just about child rights.
- « goto » Change is possible.
- « goto » Change can proliferate.
- « goto » Further information.
- « goto » Contact details.
Acknowledging global realities…
— it is not about a particular demographic or locality or religion.
Branding children (and adults) as witches is a global phenomenon that occurs in indigenous or diaspora communities in many parts of Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Europe. It may involve adherents to Christianity, Islam, Voodooism, Hinduism, or those of no faith.
Notably, it is not simply a matter of poverty or lack of education. CWA also occurs in middle and high income families, and where parents and carers are well educated, and children attending school. While poverty and lack of education may be contributory factors, these are not determinative of this issue. Equally, many who find themselves in poverty or lack access to education do not go on to accuse their children of being bewitched.
— it is not simply superstition.
It is important to recognise that CWA arise from beliefs in witchcraft that are deeply rooted in complex worldviews that may differ significantly from nation to nation, and indeed from province to province within any nation, or in different communities within any society. Simply being dismissive of beliefs in witchcraft as ‘mere superstition’ fails to grasp the realities of how people’s experiences are shaped and lived out within their worldview and cultural context.
It appears that the phenomenon of CWA is particularly prevalent in cultures where there is a ‘fear–versus–power’ worldview in which unseen malevolent spirits are perceived to inhabit and influence the physical world and individual lives. People in fear–power cultures often live in constant dread of invisible forces or beings. In these cultures, rituals are used to appease or ward off evil spirits or malevolent influences, and to protect against curses or to break them. All misfortune (such as sickness, sudden unemployment, or death) is attributed to unseen malevolent spirits and to the work of people under their sway, such as witches. Spiritual leaders in fear–power cultures are often perceived to have the ability to influence the spirit world through rituals and deliverance rites and to play an important role in protecting against disaster.
Renowned anthropologist Charles Kraft notes:
‘For what is probably the majority of the peoples of the world, the most important questions of life revolve around what to do about (or with) the supernatural powers that they believe surround them and constantly influence their lives.’
Kraft, C. H. (p.201) Anthropology for Christian Witness, New York: Orbis Books, 1996.
Definitions of a ‘witch’ may vary from culture to culture, but generally refer to a person believed to have innate, occult powers which they use in secret (often at night) to harm others. In fear–power cultures the question is not, “what has caused my misfortune?” but rather, “who has caused my misfortune — who is the witch that has cursed me?” In some cases traditional ideas of witchcraft have become syncretised with the concept of demonic possession to create a ‘witch demonology’ in which Christian church leaders in these cultures may refer to the ‘demon of witchcraft’. This further serves to confuse by conflating the concepts of witches and demons, traditionally understood to be different entities. Furthermore the idea of a ‘witch’ should not be confused with the notion of ‘diviners’ or of traditional healers. In local languages there will be specific terms used for each of these which may not easily translate into the researcher’s (or journalist’s) language.
When seeking to address CWA (or indeed, to report on this issue), it cannot be over–emphasised how important it is to research and to take the time to learn about the prevailing worldviews which underpin the beliefs and cultural norms that are at the root of the accusations and the subsequent violence that may accompany them. Only by doing so is it then possible to begin to create effective strategies to address them (or to report accurately).
Children accused of being witches…
— it has not always been this way.
SCWA have experience of working with partners in several locations in D.R.Congo, Togo, and Nigeria. These nations all have epicentres where CWA are prevalent. But it has not always been this way.
Historically, accusations have on occasions been brought against others who are powerless and vulnerable in any given society. And perhaps also against those who are an economic burden. In many cultures it was previously adults who were accused, particularly the elderly (often the women), and sometimes those with disabilities.
However, the focus on accusing children has emerged as a relatively modern and urban phenomenon, compared with traditional rural beliefs and practices. There are several factors that may contribute to this dynamic shift. New social insecurities may arise from fracturing of kinship networks (extended family and community support) with increasing migration toward urban centres (either for economic opportunities, or for political security and social stability). In some locations armed conflict and a breakdown of law and order have further added to disrupted environments.
Observing the Kinshasa context, anthropologist Filip de Boeck writes…
The increasing number of children who are ‘displaced’ within the physical and mental maps that constitute the landscapes of kinship in the city indicates that family structures themselves are undergoing increasing pressure. Labour migration, war, AIDS and other factors have contributed to the fact that families are increasingly disrupted entities. The specific character of new forms of polygamy which exist in the urban context as well as in the diaspora have added to this.
Filip de Boeck (p.136) “At Risk, as Risk”, in Jean LaFontaine (ed), The Devil’s Children, Ashgate, 2009
Children and youth may be more vulnerable, due to weakened family ties, but at the same time more empowered, due to having to live and work on the streets in the modern consumer economy, or having been engaged as child soldiers. Filip de Boeck’s essay gives deeper insight into the complex dynamics* « footnote » behind the phenomenon of CWA.
Children accused: who are they?
Any child who is considered by others to be ‘different’ in any way may potentially be at risk of being branded a witch. Sometimes normal childhood developmental issues or symptoms of childhood trauma may be perceived by others as ‘evidence’ they are bewitched. This may include: child having nightmares, wetting the bed, being particularly withdrawn and quiet, being particularly inquisitive and precocious. Children living with disabilities may also be targeted. Some research indicates that children in households with blended families, being cared for by step–parents or other guardians, may be exceptionally vulnerable to CWA.
So–called ‘indications’ that a child is a witch may vary from place to place. While such characteristics may predispose a child to being targeted, an actual accusation is usually triggered by some unforeseen misfortune in the community or family that precipitates the quest to apportion blame. At this point the child will be accused.
Children accused: what happens to them?
Merely accusing a child of witchcraft is in itself abusive, as it imposes a negative label and false identity resulting in the child being stigmatised, ostracised, and rejected. Sometimes, after repeated or sustained accusations the label is reinforced to the extent that the child will begin to question their own identity.
Those accused of being witches are often taken to a spiritual leader who is perceived by others to have the power to discern or divine whether a child is a witch or not, and also to have the authority to perform ‘deliverance’ rites. These rites often involve extreme torture and violence that not only maim the child physically but also lead to lasting psychological trauma. Under such duress some children will ‘confess’ to being a witch, in the hope that this will cause the torture to stop.
Even after a child is deemed to be ‘delivered’ from the witch entity, they are often abandoned and shunned by their families and communities and become outcasts, forced to survive in a hand–to–mouth existence on the streets.
Christian churches and church leaders…
— not all are part of the problem, many are part of the solution.
While church leaders (pastors, prophets, and others) are often not the initial source of CWA, many have participated in ‘confirming’, and hence reinforcing, the accusations of others against children. Also many are frequently implicated in abusive deliverance rites. Not all who hold the title of ‘pastor’ have had theological or pastoral training, and not all churches have effective child safeguarding and accountability structures in place.
However, this is only part of the picture. There are also many church leaders who are concerned about the impacts of CWA, and who work to provide refuge and assistance for accused children, or to find foster care, or even to reconcile and reunite them with their families. Others may be concerned for children’s welfare, but unsure how to counter the tide of social and cultural pressures driving these accusations, even fearful that they too may become a target if they speak out.
In every location where SCWA has engaged with this issue we have found partners in pastors and other church or community leaders who are keen to find new approaches and narratives which mitigate the negative impacts of CWA, but also reduce the incidence of such accusations and stigmatising in the first place.
— it is not just about child rights.
Children’s rights are being trampled on when they are accused of being witches. It is important to acknowledge this, to advocate and to allow children to reclaim their human rights. However, to focus on the child without reference to the complex relational dynamics of household and kinship, and to focus on rights without reference to the complex spiritual dynamics of worldview and belief systems will ultimately fail to be effective. NGOs that assertively champion a rights–based approach may find such confrontation unwelcome (at least) and become alienated from the communities with whom they are attempting to engage. They may fail to get the support of governance bodies and law enforcement agencies since, regardless of the legal protections for children, the perspectives and responses of officials to cases of CWA are tinged by the same worldview.
Change is possible.
Working closely with partners in several locations over a period of five years, SCWA has developed an approach that we have found to be effective in addressing CWA, and in changing people’s understanding of children and their actions towards them. We continue to monitor the outcomes of this approach (over more than two years now).
This approach involves building trust with key church leaders who are keen to bring about change in areas where accusations against children are prevalent, and with their help carrying out Focus Group research to identify the roots, realities, and responses to CWA in target areas. Having analysed this research, we then help local partners to organise Action Forums for church leaders in which experienced theologians lead contextualised, Bible–based dialogue to explore key topics and encourage participants to re–examine and question the beliefs in which CWA are rooted.
Participants frequently undergo a very real transformation in their thinking, attitudes, and practices. They are encouraged to become agents of change who share their learning with others in their churches and communities. Many have become champions for children accused of being witches, advocating for their protection, defending them against further accusations, and committing themselves to ongoing action within their churches and communities.
Change can proliferate.
With these partners SCWA has now developed and implemented a further resource for trainers. Entitled “The Heart of the Matter”, this has been proven to have an extremely powerful impact. After experiencing this training for themselves, church leaders are using this to bring about a positive change among neighbouring churches and communities. The Heart of the Matter has also been the basis for the production of audio resources and radio programmes in D.R.Congo that are broadcast to a much wider audience, encouraging a positive change.
SCWA’s experience has shown that although there are big challenges in engaging with this issue, change for good is certainly possible when the right approaches are used — approaches that involve a willingness to learn in all humility about other worldviews and cultures, and to engage with the roots of CWA in partnership, working closely with local partners in each location who want to make a positive difference for children’s wellbeing.
Further information is available on our website « https://stop-cwa.org », through our published reports « available here », research recently published in the On Knowing Humanity Journal « available here », and other relevant publications.
SCWA can be contacted at « firstname.lastname@example.org ».
* About SCWA
SCWA do not claim to be experts on this issue, but our learning has come through practical experience with partners in local communities…
Established in 2012, SCWA is a coalition of individuals and agencies responding to the reality of children experiencing serious harm or the threat of harm due to accusations of witchcraft or belief in malevolent spiritual influence. While we are based in the UK, some of our Steering Group members work overseas in the field of church and community mobilisation and development, serving in partnership with agencies that are addressing this issue in regions where CWA are prevalent.
Our vision is to play our part in ending accusations of witchcraft against children and the resulting harm, so that all children can be nurtured, valued, and kept safe within their churches and communities, living a life free from fear, full of hope and opportunity.
We work by influencing churches to engage with harmful beliefs and practices. We empower leaders to guide their church congregations and communities through a learning process, which helps people to explore and apprehend the roots, implications, and consequences of such attitudes and actions. We link with other agencies and people who share this common vision. We encourage and support research to enhance understanding and to inform advocacy and practice. We develop training tools and awareness–raising resources, to equip church leaders with an essential grounding in theology, the law, and child development. We share methods and approaches proven to bring about a positive transformational change.
* Fears and insecurities
Factors behind Kinshasa’s “child witches” on the street:
Exploring this phenomenon, Filip de Boeck notes* that taking the complex topic of witchcraft and putting a child in the mix, “...easily turns into an explosive cocktail.” However, accusing children is “...a thoroughly modern and primarily urban phenomenon which has little in common with longstanding notions of witchcraft as they continue to exist in more rural areas.”
Political and economic insecurity may enhance the problem, yet “...the occurrence of the same phenomenon in Congolese diaspora contexts in Europe, for example, ...seems to indicate that poverty alone is not a sufficient explanation.” Rather, new forms of social insecurity — the fracturing of kinship care networks formerly provided by extended family — are identified as a key concern. “Labour migration, war, AIDS, and other factors have contributed to the fact that families are increasingly disrupted entities.” Add to these a distinctive form of urban polygamy, and a narrowing redefinition of family as ‘nuclear’. This diminishes the sense of gift–obligation towards extended kin, weakening wider family ties, in particular with step–children.
Anxiety and “spiritual insecurity” arise from these shifting social networks under the strain of the urban environment and economy, provoking “...a profound interpretative crisis. ...as if there are constantly other, more hidden and invisible, forces at work which complicate and impact upon the daily life of most citizens.” Compounded by weak governance, — ineffective law enforcement and policing — new churches step in to provide explanatory narratives. In the role of a traditional diviner, they legitimise accusations and suspicions against children.
On one hand, the child’s former place in the family disintegrates; on the other, a new empowerment of youth is evident. Connected with shifting economic roles (diamond rush dollars) and recent military experiences (child soldiering), children in the urban sphere are seen, and to some extent feared, as powerful social and political actors.
* sourced from Filip de Boeck’s essay, “At Risk, as Risk”, in Jean LaFontaine (ed), The Devil’s Children, Ashgate 2009
— condensed extract as quoted in “Roots, Realities, Responses: lessons learnt in tackling witchcraft accusations against children.” SCWA Coalition, October 2016.