But what can we do about witchcraft accusations?
In my last post, I talked briefly about some of the work that is being done to support children who have been accused of witchcraft. Sometimes, thinking about the sheer number of children who are affected by this issue, and the lack of help available, can be overwhelming. But then I think about all the work being done and all the people who are working – in some cases risking their lives – to help children accused of witchcraft, and I feel more hope for the future.
In Nigeria, there are some amazing people and organizations, including our partners the Basic Rights Counsel Initiative and SYDRI, as well as the PACT Coalition of child rights charities, doing fantastic work to support children accused of witchcraft. Through our SAFEChild project, we work with these groups to provide emergency care to children – we find out what they need and provide it, whether this is medical care, food, counselling, a safe place to stay both immediately and if needed, in the long term, and help in accessing education. We also provide legal aid, so if the children want to, we can help them to bring prosecutions against those who have abused them. And there are other people and organizations doing similar work in other parts of Nigeria and other countries, like the group EPED that Susie works with in Kinshasa. I feel truly humble to be working with people who simply refuse to stand by and do nothing to help children.
I’ve also been encouraged by the growing awareness among policy-makers of how child witchcraft accusations can result in violations of children’s rights. When I first started at Safe Child Africa, there seemed to be very little knowledge of this issue among governments, the UN, the EU and within academia. But over the last few years, I’ve seen more academic work being done on this, I’ve seen it being recognized by various UN agencies as a human rights issue and the EU have recognized it as a policy concern. There is also increasing work being done in the UK, with a National Working Group on child abuse linked to faith or belief, which in 2012 produced an Action Plan to address this issue. We’ve also seen the issue of child witchcraft accusations raised in the UK House of Commons and House of Lords and in the Scottish Parliament. I’m really proud that our work has contributed to this – our reports to UN agencies, our documentary which was shown all around the world, and our ‘behind the scenes’ work to meet with key people and persuade them to push this issue on policy agendas.
I’m also really excited about the work that SCWA is doing. We are about to launch a report into the work that has been done in DR Congo with local church leaders and African theologians, a training resource to help church leaders respond to child witchcraft accusations is under development and will be piloted in 2017, and we have developed an online resource bank of practical tools to help churches with child protection.
But there is still a long way to go. The capacity of the people who are doing frontline work to help children accused of witchcraft is not sufficient to meet the need. The bottom line is that right now we need more money to expand our services to reach more children and to be able to keep working with communities to help them better understand that children have rights and that some of the ways children accused of witchcraft are treated is child abuse. Long-term, it is these preventative strategies that will end this abuse – we want to stop children being abused in the first place, not have to keep helping them after the abuse has happened.
In Calabar, where our SAFEChild project is based, there is a huge precedent for this. In the late 1800s, there was a belief in the region that twins brought misfortune, and many twins were killed or abandoned at birth. A Scottish missionary called Mary Slessor successfully campaigned against and helped to end this practice, including taking twins she found into her care. She is still remembered there today – the first time I went to Calabar I was told over and over about her, and there are memorials to her around the city.
We also need to keep up the pressure on those people and agencies who have the power to make widespread, systematic changes. We need the UN to ensure that governments in affected countries support children who are abused as a result of witchcraft accusations, and educate their people about children’s rights. We need governments to make clear statements that abuse of children believed to be witches will not be tolerated, and to follow this up with action and investment to support the children, through effective child protection systems, and prosecute those who have abused them. Governments ultimately have both the power and the responsibility to end this abuse.
I know there are so many people, around the world, who support our work and the work done by others to help children accused of witchcraft. Our supporters are amazing and they do so much. But if there is one thing I would ask people to do to help, right now, it is to tell someone else about this. Child witchcraft accusations remain a hugely hidden problem. Because I have been working on this issue for more than seven years, I forget how many people have never heard of it. The first step to ending this, to achieving all the things I have listed above that need to be changed, is to bring it out into the open, to shine a spotlight on it and to say, over and over, that we cannot and will not allow children to continue to be treated like this.