Bedwetting, disagreeing with parents or being left-handed are considered relatively normal features for many children, but in some African countries, these are grounds for sometimes deadly accusations of witchcraft against them.
Thousands of children each year are beaten, burned, imprisoned and subjected to exorcism rituals because they are believed to be witches, according to Kurt Madoerin, an adviser to the Regional Psychosocial Support Initiative (Repssi), which operates in East and Southern Africa.
“According to estimations of the minister of social affairs, as many as 50 000 children might be held in the apparently thousands of churches in Tanzania – often in dismal conditions – as they await exorcism,” Madoerin told delegates at a three-day-long psychosocial forum in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, last week.
The network hosts the forum biannually to promote awareness among governments, civil society, academia and the media about the need for psychosocial support for vulnerable children.
Madoerin said that a 2006 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees report found that in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, “60% of the presumed 25 000 street children have been kicked out of their homes due to allegations of witchcraft”.
In Malawi, 74% of people interviewed in a 2011 study by Erwin van der Meer from consulting company Across Consult, believed that children thought to be witches “must be subjected to traditional cleansing ceremonies, exorcisms, arrest, imprisonment and beatings, with some suggesting execution”.
Madoerin has a doctorate in sociology and founded the nongovernmental organisation KwaWazee in 2003 in Tanzania, which supports people living with HIV and Aids.
A 2010 report called Accusations of Witchcraft against Children in Akwa Ibom State, Nigeria, found that 81% of the documented cases of children living on the street in the state had been pushed out of their homes following accusations of witchcraft.
The same report, compiled by nongovernmental organisation Stepping Stones, contained some startling anecdotal evidence of brutality that children accused of witchcraft faced, Madoerin said, explaining a couple of case histories.
“[One] boy was burnt with hot water and suffered first and second degree burns as a result, because he was thought to be a witch. He was then dumped on the streets,” he said.
“[A] girl had a nail driven into her head because she was believed to be a witch. This left her with a permanent mental disability. She was found living on the streets.
“[Another] girl was accused of witchcraft by a pastor. Her father then imprisoned her in a shed for several weeks with her legs tied to a stake.”
Madoerin said children who are particularly vulnerable to these accusations were those with disabilities, twins, “geniuses”, and those who are “naughty”, rude or are involved in delinquent activity.
Accusations on the rise
The number of accusations are on the rise in Tanzania, he said, explaining to delegates how a resident of Mubunda village, Jeremias Kimasha, told him this year: “If I compare the situation of today with the situation some 50 years ago, I can say there were also some few cases of accusation of uchawi [witchcraft] – but not like today.”
Elisa Gourgel, chief of the department of information and awareness at the National Institute for Children in Angola, said the institute began research into street children in Luanda in 2006. This was when they discovered the main reason why so many children were homeless: they had been accused of witchcraft.
Gourgel told the Mail & Guardian that people levelled these accusations against chidren because families were living in “absolute poverty”.
“When parents are going through a hard time … they will associate this with witchcraft because they are looking for a reason for why they are in absolute poverty.
“They are looking for a scapegoat, and it is easy to accuse a child of such things, so they will accuse their own children of this witchcraft.”
Madoerin said poverty, lack of understanding of the disabilities that can affect children, and destructive media were some of the causes of the proliferation of these accusations in Tanzania.
But the main factor was “the thousands of ‘revivalist’ or ‘revelation’ churches”.
“[They] fulfil a dual purpose: they play a part in determining who is a witch and they work to ‘cure’ those witches,” Madoerin said. “The pastors generally believe that they have received a spiritual gift to understand these children …”
The strength of the doctrine, believed by those who should know better, made addressing the problem harder. Madoerin said it even showed among the ranks of his own organisation.
“We had a heavy conflict recently when one member accused another member of using witchcraft to harm her child. But we now know this child just has epilepsy.”
He said government needed to arrange for a dialogue with religious and traditional healers “in order to identify common ground to combat the abuse of children accused of witchcraft”.
Communities also needed to be taught about child development so that some behaviour, such as arguing with parents, is normalised again.
But in terms of governmental action, “nothing is happening”, he said.
“Most corrupt is the police and the second most corrupt is the courts … the courts often just want to drop the case when they are presented with ones about witchcraft,” he said.
“[The Tanzanian] government is embarrassed that so many people are being killed because of this. They want to keep it quiet. They don’t want to be disturbed.”