Election Poses Dangers for Street Children
(Kinshasa, April 4, 2006) – As presidential elections approach, Congo’s tens of thousands of street children risk political manipulation and physical harm, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
In recent years, leaders of political parties have enlisted street children to create public disorder in mass demonstrations. In many cases, the security forces have responded to these protests with excessive use of force, leading to the death and injury of dozens of children.
The 72-page report, “What Future? Street Children in the Democratic Republic of Congo (http://hrw.org/reports/2006/drc0406/),” documents how security officials and other adults routinely abuse the country’s street children. In the past 10 years, armed conflict, HIV/AIDS, prohibitive education fees, and even accusations of sorcery have led to a doubling of the number of street children. With no secure access to shelter, food or other basic needs, these children live in insecurity and fear.
Instead of providing street children with protection, police and soldiers routinely use physical violence and threats of arrest to steal from these children. Street children also face physical and sexual abuse at the hands of adults and older youth, who take advantage of their vulnerable status. Rape of both girls and boys is pervasive.
“As a first step, the Congolese government must protect street children during the election period. U.N. agencies in Congo should redouble their efforts to prevent abuse,” said Tony Tate, Africa children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch and the author of the report. “Congolese authorities should use this opportunity to start addressing the abuses committed against children.”
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Taking a break?
The Congolese government periodically orders mass roundups of street children, justifying their detention on the basis of a colonial-era law that forbids children from begging. Guilty of nothing more than being without a home, large groups of children are detained and held in overcrowded jails, often mixed with adult prisoners. Held for days in deplorable conditions, these children are usually released without being charged, and then put back on the street.
“Congolese authorities should be assisting homeless children, not throwing them in jail,” said Tate. “The government should end roundups of street children and do away with laws that criminalize children for being homeless.”
In an alarming trend, an increasing number of children are being accused of sorcery, even though such accusations are specifically prohibited by Congo’s new constitution. Orphans or children living with step-parents are particularly vulnerable to accusations, made by their surviving relatives, that they are sorcerers responsible for the family’s misfortunes. Accused children are often neglected, abused, and thrown out of their homes.
Agencies that work with children in Kinshasa estimate that as many as 70 percent of the city’s street children had been accused of sorcery before they ended up on the street.
Specialized pastors or prophets from “churches of revival” perform ceremonies to rid children of their sorcery. In many such churches, dozens of children can be held for days at a time, with food and water denied. In the worst cases, children are whipped, beaten or given purgatives until they confess to sorcery. Even after the process is concluded, however, children can be subjected to further abuse at home, and ultimately abandonment.
“Congo’s new constitution expressly prohibits accusing children of sorcery,” said Tate. “Congolese authorities must take action against adults who mistreat children.”
Children affected by HIV/AIDS are particularly susceptible to accusations of sorcery. In the belief that HIV can be transmitted through sorcery, family members sometimes blame children for causing the death of their parents from AIDS. Already AIDS orphans, these children become double victims of the epidemic. National HIV/AIDS prevention campaigns must educate the Congolese public about the causes of HIV/AIDS and refute the view that it can be transmitted through sorcery.
Excerpt from the report:
Abuses in churches
Parents or guardians who accuse children of witchcraft may send the child to a church for deliverance ceremonies organized by pastors or prophets. In the last fifteen years, self-proclaimed pastors and prophets have established numerous “churches of revival”123 that specialize in the deliverance of children from alleged possession. Many of these churches combine traditional Congolese beliefs and rituals with elements of Christianity.
The ceremonies that pastors perform range from simple prayers and singing to holding the children for several days at the churches, denying them food and water, and whipping or beating confessions out of them. Save the Children/UK has been active in attempting to change the behavior of the worst of these pastors. According to a Save the Children/UK project manager in Mbuji-Mayi, the most abusive pastors withhold food and water from children, whip or burn them to coerce their confessions, or pour salt water in their anuses or down their throats to purge the “evil” from their bodies.124 An organized group of pastors in Kinshasa which, through peer outreach, tries to change the behavior of abusive pastors confirmed these accusations. They additionally reported that sometimes children are tied up during their confinement at the churches and that in a few cases boys and girls have been sexually assaulted by members affiliated with the churches while in confinement.125
We interviewed several children who had undergone particularly brutal deliverance ceremonies. Twelve-year-old Brian never knew his real father but was accused by his stepfather of sorcery soon after his mother remarried. He told us that the accusations began the night after he wet his bed. In the following days his stepfather beat him, called him names, and later took him to a church for deliverance. Brian was not kept at the church at night, but had to come each day during a four-day period. He told us, “We were not allowed to eat or drink for three days [either at church or at home]. On the fourth day, the prophet held our hands over a candle, to get us to confess.” When it was Brian’s turn, he was told that he would be whipped if he didn’t confess. Weak from thirst and hunger, he admitted that he was a sorcerer so that he could leave the church.126
Malachi was only nine when he and his brother were brought by his stepfather to a deliverance ceremony. He told us that his stepfather brutally beat him and his brother in front of the pastor at the church. The pastor then agreed that Malachi and his brother were “possessed” and needed deliverance. Malachi told us only that his brother went through the painful ceremony, but refused to describe to us what had happened.127
Many of the children we talked with were unable to identify which church or pastor had performed the deliverance ceremony. One boy in Mbuji-Mayi, however, told us that his stepmother had brought him and his little brother to Prophet Kabuni Wa Lesa at the Charismatic Evangelical Center. The two boys were held for three days at the church and given no food or water, but were not otherwise physically abused. On the third day they were given some murky water, at which point his little brother began vomiting. His little brother’s expulsion of the water reportedly led the prophet to identify him as the source of sorcery in the family.128
In an interview with Human Rights Watch, Prophet Kabuni told us that the vast majority of his clients at the deliverance ceremonies were children. He said that he was well known in the community as a successful diviner of sorcery, and that because of his reputation he had scores of children brought to him each week. He told us that it was necessary to withhold food and water from everyone undergoing deliverance ceremonies to decrease the evil power that held those who were possessed. When questioned about the practice and the harm this could cause a child, he replied that there had never been a death at his church and that they do not withhold food and water from young children––defined by him as less than four years old.129
After the accusations
Some children who undergo these ceremonies are reunified with their family members who believe that the spirits have been exorcised. Some families, though, appear unconvinced that the ceremony was successful. They may accept the child initially and wait to see whether another perceived evil occurs and if so, throw the child out. In other cases, children returning from the churches are immediately made to leave the home, whether or not the ceremony was deemed successful by the pastors.
According to a Roman Catholic priest working with street children in Kinshasa, many pastors who perform these ceremonies are most concerned with the wishes of the adults who bring the child in for deliverance. If they appear not to want the child to return, then the pastor may advise the parent or guardian not to take the child back, or may suggest the boy or girl may need to return to the church for further consultations.130 A prophet who “delivers” children in Kinshasa, confirmed that one challenge was reunifying children with their families after performing a ceremony. He told us, “Our biggest problem is that children come here, we do the service, but then the parents do not want the children back. This is especially true in cases where the child has ‘eaten’131 someone in the family. We try to convince the parents where we can.”132
Twelve-year-old Brian, who was abused during a deliverance ceremony, told us:
After I confessed to being a sorcerer, I didn’t have to go back to the church. But things at home got worse. My stepfather never believed that the prophet was successful. He would beat me when he saw me. Even my mother began to believe I was a sorcerer. One time when I was sleeping, she poured petrol into my ears.133 Another time, she brought me to a section of town I didn’t know and abandoned me there. I eventually found my way home but was not welcomed into the house. I decided at that point it was better to live on the streets.134
Activists who try to reunify street children with their families identified cases of children accused of sorcery as being the most difficult and least likely to succeed. Guardians or family members often refuse to listen to social workers or accept a child back once he or she has left the home. For these activists, the general failure to reunify children accused of sorcery makes successful prevention all the more important, but they told us that despite the efforts of some nongovernmental organizations, the government was doing very little to deter the abuse.
The police, judicial investigators and government officials rarely intervene in cases of child sorcery accusations and physical abuse in homes or in churches. Police personnel we interviewed claimed that cases of physical abuse were not generally brought to their attention since it was children who would have to make the accusations.135 Judges in the Courts of Peace in Mbuji-Mayi and Lubumbashi were aware of only a few cases of parents or guardians charged with physical abuse, and none related to accusations of sorcery.136 For abusive pastors and prophets, little has been done to curb their practices. In Mbuji-Mayi, Congolese human rights organizations, judicial personnel, and the police themselves knew of no case where a pastor or church had been investigated for abusing children. In Kinshasa in 2004, the then Minister of Social Affairs, at the insistence of children’s rights groups, reportedly led an investigation into a case where church leaders were abusing children. The pastor was arrested and the church temporarily closed, but the pastor was never brought to justice.137 Officials in both the Ministries of Justice and Social Affairs agreed that more needed to be done to curb abusive practices by both parents and pastors, particularly because such abuse is expressly prohibited and punishable by law under the new constitution.138