‘Why do people think children are witches?’

This is the question I am most often asked when I tell people about the vital support Safe Child Africa gives to children who have been accused of witchcraft.

The idea that a child can be believed to be a witch is incomprehensible to many people – after all, most of us here in the UK know witches and wizards only as something from the realm of fantasy, or horror films, or Harry Potter, but not a real thing that can affect our lives. Growing up in Lancaster, which is known for the trial and hanging of the Lancashire Witches in 1612, for me the belief in witchcraft was always something from the distant past.

So it’s essential to understand that for other people, in West Africa but also in other parts of the world, the belief that witches exist and that they are dangerous is a fact of everyday life. Nigeria is the country in which I’ve had the most experience of this belief system and I know there are similar situations in other countries such as DR Congo, Togo and Liberia.

It’s also important to remember that witchcraft accusations against children have been reported from over 30 countries all around the world – in Africa, Asia, South America, Central America, the Middle East and Europe. Definitions of a ‘witch’ vary in different cultures but generally always include a person who acts in secret, often at night, and who has the power and desire to harm others by supernatural means. The ‘witch’ is usually seen as being contained within the person (and can therefore be removed), rather than an external spirit that ‘possesses’ them.

In many cultures, there is an underlying belief that all misfortune in life – death, illness, economic problems, environmental destruction – is caused by spiritual powers and any problem must have been caused deliberately by somebody. So when something goes wrong, there must be someone to blame. The blame is laid at the door of the ‘witches’ and in these cultures (unlike, for example, Wiccan beliefs) a witch is always evil and uses their powers for malevolent purposes. It is then seen as essential to find and remove the ‘witch’ so they cannot cause any more harm.

Unfortunately, Nigeria is a country with huge economic inequality, high incidences of disease and poor healthcare, and widespread environmental degradation. It is therefore reasoned that there must be a huge number of witches causing all these problems.

Across cultures and throughout history, suspicions of witchcraft have fallen upon the most vulnerable in society. In Europe in the 1600s, suspicion was directed at often elderly, solitary women. We still see many witchcraft accusations against women today, for example in Ghana and India. Over the last 20 years, in several countries, suspicion has begun to fall on children. There are many theories about why children began to be the target of accusations, including responses to poverty and inequality; changing understandings of childhood; growing participation of children in society, meaning they are seen as having greater power and child abuse being portrayed as legitimate in some popular cultural media. A lack of knowledge about the causes of disease and other medical problems also plays a role – I’ve seen cases where the obvious symptoms of malaria or epilepsy in a child are described as evidence that the child is a witch, and ‘mysterious’ deaths are not seen as resulting from HIV/AIDS, a lack of access to healthcare, malnutrition or a polluted environment, but as being caused by a child witch.

There are also some cases where an accusation of witchcraft is used very cynically to get rid of an unwanted child or to scapegoat a child for something that is actually an adult’s fault but for which they want to avoid blame. There many cases when an accusation is made by a step-parent, who may not wish to take responsibility for a child who is not their own. There are cases where a parent does not want to deal with a ‘difficult’ child and forces them out of their home by accusing them of witchcraft. There are also churches that know they can make money by charging parents for ‘deliverance’ of a child who is a witch, and so continue to promote the belief in child witches and claim to identify witches within congregation.

Here's Mercy, accused of witchcraft because she 'played outside too much'.

Here's Mercy, accused of witchcraft because she 'played outside too much'.

But there are also many well-meaning parents and church leaders who genuinely believe a child is a witch, and that they are causing harm not only to those around them but also to themselves. They believe that they are doing what is best for the child when they try to force out the ‘witch’ inside them. That’s why it is so important to not just tell people they are evil and wrong, but to help them see that what they are doing is abusive and that there are alternatives.