KINSHASA (Reuters) – When Pascal’s little brother got sick, his family accused him of witchcraft and took him to a pastor who forced him to drink pigeon’s blood and oil.
Denied food and beaten for three days, the ten-year-old managed to escape, joining some 250,000 other street children in Congo for three years until he was scooped up by a children’s centre in Kinshasa’s tough east end.
“(The pastor) wouldn’t let me eat or drink any water — he said it would increase the power of the witch,” Pascal, not his real name, said in the centre where nearly 100 other children, most accused of witchcraft, have also sought shelter.
UNICEF, the United Nations’ children’s charity, says accusing children of sorcery is a fairly new and growing trend in Africa, despite long-held traditional and mystic beliefs on the continent.
“The phenomenon of ‘child witches’… occurs in urban areas, where it has grown constantly in the last thirty years,” according to a UNICEF study published this month.
Where previously elderly women were accused, today the focus more often falls on young children, often some of the most vulnerable, such as orphans, disabled or poor.
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The U.N. report says many children ousted from their homes for being witches are blamed for family misfortunes ranging from sickness and poverty to envious stepmothers. Some religious sects make money exorcising their spirits.
“It’s a problem that’s growing every day,” says Father Justin Onganga, a Catholic priest who manages another centre.
“This has nothing to do with witchcraft but it has everything to do with urban poverty,” Onganga said.
Study author Aleksandra Cimpric found 70 percent of people imprisoned in Central African Republic’s capital are there due to witchcraft accusations, and said some children confess to flying on peanut shells, mango tree bark and avocado skins.
“Even though we Africans believe that witchcraft exists, these are all false cases,” said Onganga.
Children accused of witchcraft
This study on ‘Children accused of witchcraft’ addresses the issue of children who are victims of violence, abuse and mistreatment due to local beliefs, representations and practices, in particular, relating to witchcraft.
The study covers the manifestations, definitions, distribution and scale of the phenomenon of witchcraft accusations against children in Africa, with a particular focus on West and Central Africa.
It looks at the profile of children that are being accused of being witches and at the effects on them, the causes, which are not only cultural and social, but also economic and political, and origins of witchcraft accusations against children.
It also covers what has been done to respond to the phenomenon of child witchcraft accusations and suggest some strategies to respond to the phenomenon.
Cases of children being accused of witchcraft occur particularly in at least eight countries in west and central Africa: Benin, Gabon, Nigeria, Liberia, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Congo Brazzaville and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
Although the phenomenon may vary from place to place, typically a child will be considered responsible for a perceived evil that has fallen on the family or community and face accusations that he or she is ‘possessed’.
Behaviours commonly associated with accusations of witchcraft include violence, mistreatment, abuse, infanticide and the abandonment of children.
– Source: Unicef