The UK government has announced plans to tackle the “wall of silence” around the abuse and neglect of children accused of witchcraft, following the brutal murder of Kristy Bamu, who was tortured to death in London in 2010 by his sister and her partner after they said he was a witch.
Under the new plans, the government aims to identify and prosecute more offenders by raising awareness of faith-based abuse and its links to trafficking, missing children and sexual exploitation or grooming. The goal is also to help the victims give evidence.
Tim Loughton, the children’s minister, said: “Child abuse is appalling and unacceptable wherever it occurs and in whatever form it takes. Abuse linked to faith or belief in spirits, witchcraft or possession is a horrific crime, condemned by people of all cultures, communities and faiths – but there has been a wall of silence around its scale and extent.
“It is not our job to challenge people’s beliefs but it is our job to protect children. There can never be a blind eye turned to violence or emotional abuse or even the smallest risk that religious beliefs will lead to young people being harmed.”
Football coach Eric Bikubi, 28, has been ordered to serve at least 30 years. His partner, Magalie Bamu, 29, will serve a minimum of 25 years.
The pair was convicted for murdering the boy in what has been referred to as a ‘completely feral’ attack.
Believing that Kristy was trying to bewitch them, the couple beat and tortured him for three days, using used knives, sticks, kitchen tiles, metal bars, a pair of pliers, a hammer and a chisel. Then they drowned him in their bathtub.
There is very little information available about the scale of such abuse.
In London there have been 81 recorded cases of children being abused as part of religious practice over the past 10 years but police and church groups are convinced it is under-reported.
Previous research suggests that the practice is not confined to African communities and exists in different forms across southern Asia and parts of Europe within some Christian sects but also some Hindu and Muslim communities.
Mr Loughton announced a new action plan drawn up after discussions between police, child welfare charities and faith groups including churches.
It calls for new social workers and teachers to be taught about the issue as part of their training as well as new measures to spread awareness within religious groups.
Police are being given guidance drawn up by specialists at Scotland Yard setting out some of the possible warning signs, including certain types of injuries children may bear.
Mr Loughton said it was clear the full extent of the abuse was being underestimated. […]
Cases investigated in London so far this year include one in which a boy was assaulted because his parents believed he was bringing bad luck and another forced to drink a noxious substance supposedly to rid him of evil spirits.
Scotland Yard says it has conducted 83 investigations into cases of faith-based child abuse in the past decade including those of Victoria Climbie who was eight when she was murdered in 2000 and the headless torso of “Adam”, a five or six-year-old boy, which was found in the Thames in 2001.
Ministers are concerned that although the investigations number just a few dozen, other abuse is going on, “under-reported and misunderstood”.
The National Action Plan to Tackle Child Abuse Linked to Faith or Belief was drawn up with faith leaders, charities, the police and social workers.
It urges closer engagement with local communities and churches, better training for social workers and police and better psychological and therapeutic support for victims.
It also aims to secure prosecutions through supporting victims to give evidence in court and more awareness of how faith-based abuse links with other crimes such as child trafficking and sexual exploitation.
The government admits more research is needed before it can act effectively to protect children – the last study was in 2006 and looked at 38 cases involving 47 children from Africa, South Asia and Europe, all of whom had been abused in the name of possession or witchcraft. So a key element of the action plan is to conduct further research.
Other measures include greater efforts to listen to the voices of young people in the affected communities and to build up networks of faith leader and community “champions” against this kind of abuse.
According to police and migrant advisory services, witchcraft ceremonies are spreading because of the increasing number of unregulated back street churches and mosques that have broken away from the mainstream places of worship to cater for millions of new immigrants from Africa, South Asia and the Caribbean countries, providing a link to their birth countries, cultures and customs.
Many of these horrific events are filmed and can be found on videos selling for a couple of pounds in ethnic shops and market stalls in London. What they show is terrified children, accused of witchcraft, being freed of ‘demons’. In one video I bought, a white-robed pastor is shown hitting a five-year-old boy with a long stick as the congregation chants approval.
His mother cries, but is held back from freeing her son because it is thought — by the prayergoers — to be the best thing for the family and their child. They are scenes which police believe are being repeated week after week in cities such as London, Birmingham, Leicester and Manchester.
But where do these cultural practices become blatant child cruelty punishable by the law?
Rachel Takens-Milne, from Trust For London, a charity that works to combat child abuse linked to witchcraft, says that cases such as that of Kristy Bamu are still rare.
But she added: ‘It doesn’t have to be at this extreme to be abuse. Calling a child a witch and publicly humiliating them is itself a form of abuse.’
And, worryingly, Detective Superintendent Terry Sharpe of Scotland Yard says that witchcraft-linked crime is ‘far more prevalent’ in this country than official figures suggest.
‘Children have been physically beaten and forced to drink unknown liquids in rituals to rid them of evil spirits. They have been starved and deprived of sleep.
‘Children have been blindfolded and had their hair cut off. They have had liquid poured on their genitals and been murdered,’ he said after the Kristy case.
“Child abuse is appalling and unacceptable wherever it occurs and in whatever form it takes. Abuse linked to faith or belief in spirits, witchcraft or possession is a horrific crime, condemned by people of all cultures, communities and faiths – but there has been a ‘wall of silence’ around its scale and extent. It is not our job to challenge people’s beliefs but it is our job to protect children,” Children’s Minister Tim Loughton. “There can never be a blind eye turned to violence or emotional abuse or even the smallest risk that that religious beliefs will lead to young people being harmed.”
However the Minister pointed out that there is no “silver bullet” in resolving this. “This plan will help people recognise and know how to act on evidence, concerns and signs that a child’s health and safety is being threatened. Everyone working with children has a responsibility to recognise and know how to act on evidence that a children is being abused,” he added.
Key Messages: child abuse linked to faith or belief
Key messages from the national action plan to tackle child abuse linked to faith or belief:
Child abuse is never acceptable wherever it occurs and whatever form it takes. Abuse linked to belief, including belief in witchcraft or possession, is a horrific crime which is condemned by people of all cultures, communities and faiths. [The Government / my organisation] applauds the work being done in communities to tackle this form of abuse and to stand up to the perpetrators.
Child abuse is condemned by people of all cultures, communities and faiths, and is never acceptable under any circumstances. Child abuse related to belief includes inflicting physical violence or emotional harm on a child by stigmatising or labelling them as evil or as a witch. Where this type of abuse occurs it causes great distress and suffering to the child.
Everyone working or in contact with children has a responsibility to recognise and know how to act on evidence, concerns and signs that a child’s health, development and safety is being or may be threatened, especially when they suffer or are likely to suffer significant harm.
Standard child safeguarding procedures apply and must always be followed in all cases where abuse or neglect is suspected including those that may be related to particular belief systems.
The number of cases of child abuse linked to a belief in spirits, possession and witchcraft is small, but where it occurs the impact on the child is great, causing much distress and suffering to the child. It is likely that a proportion of this type of abuse remains unreported.
Research commissioned by the DfE in 2006 reviewed child abuse cases that had occurred between 2000 and 2005 to identify any cases where the abuse was linked to accusations of possession or witchcraft. 38 cases involving 47 children were found to be relevant and sufficiently well documented. The children came from a variety of backgrounds including African, South Asian and European.
Child abuse linked to faith or belief may occur where a child is treated as a scapegoat for perceived failure. Whilst specific beliefs, practices, terms or forms of abuse may exist, the underlying reasons for the abuse are often similar to other contexts in which children become at risk. These reasons can include family stress, deprivation, domestic violence, substance abuse and mental health problems. Children who are different in some way, perhaps because they have a disability or learning difficulty, an illness or are exceptionally bright, can also be targeted in this kind of abuse.