Child-Witches: Beyond Halloween

Working for Safe Child Africa has opened my eyes to things that nobody would ever want to see.

Before I started working at Safe Child Africa, I didn’t really know much about child witchcraft accusations. I joined the charity as a volunteer back in October 2009. I had just completed a PhD in International Human Rights Law so the charity asked me to help write a Shadow Report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. The report focussed on the problem of child witchcraft accusations and how they affected children’s rights in Nigeria. To get to grips with this, I did a lot of research – reading reports by academics, Nigerian organisations and other charities working in the field as well as Nigerian news articles.

I was completely horrified by what I found. It was clear that an accusation of witchcraft devastates a child’s life in so many ways. I found that almost all of a child’s rights can be violated if that child is accused of witchcraft:

      There is the initial abuse, which is usually very violent, sometimes fatal.

      There is the psychological abuse, because a child comes to believe that they are evil and the cause of all their family’s problems.

      There is often abandonment, which deprives a child of a safe home environment. Fending for themselves on the streets, a child might struggle to meet their needs for food, water, education and sanitation.

      There is the long-term discrimination, which sees a child ostracised, shunned and rejected by their family and community because of the bad luck that they are believed to bring.

Seven years later, I’ve met many children who have been accused of witchcraft during my trips to Nigeria. It amazes me to see how resilient many of these children are, if they are helped in the way that they need. Many of the boys at our street child shelter had been on the streets because they were thought to be witches; they are so happy and lively now and doing really well in school. I’ve also met Precious and Mercy, two girls whose stories have been featured on our website, and seen how happy they are in their new homes.

But there is still so much about the work I do that makes me sad – and angry – because some children will never be able to go on to rebuild their lives. I’ve met children who have been horribly maimed for life due to being beaten, cut with machetes, or burnt; I’ve been told about children having nails driven into their heads to ‘get rid of the witch inside them’. And yet in spite of this they can be so incredibly brave, like Nwanaokwo, a little boy who even when he was dying of his injuries, said he wanted his story to be told to stop this happening to any more children.

That’s why, throughout this blog series, I’m hoping to tell you a bit more about child witchcraft accusations – why they happen, what the effect is on the children, what is being done and what else needs to be done to make sure no more children suffer like Nwanaokwo and Precious and Mercy and all the other children I’ve met or been told about over the years. We’ll also be welcoming guest bloggers to talk about their experiences with this issue. I’m very pleased that Susie Howe, the Director of the Bethany Children’s Trust, will be writing a post for us about her work on child witchcraft accusations across Africa. In 2012, Susie and I worked together to found the Stop Child Witchcraft Accusations Coalition (SCWA), which specifically focuses on working with churches to end the abuse of children believed to be witches. But more on that soon…