Vulnerable children may be suffering horrific abuse behind closed doors after being blamed for coronavirus by believers in witchcraft and demonic possession.
There has been a disturbing rise in abuse of children associated with witchcraft over recent years, with latest figures showing there were 2,080 children in need between 2019 and 2020 where abuse linked to faith or belief was identified as a factor.
This is almost 7% higher than the previous year when there were 1,950 cases where it was identified as a factor – and hundreds more than the 1,460 cases reported in 2016.
However, specialists working in this area believe these figures are only the tip of the iceberg and the true number will be much higher as the issue is so under-reported.
And they told HuffPost UK they fear the real repercussions of the abuse suffered by children accused of coronavirus witchcraft will only come to light after the pandemic is over, as many will be trapped in their homes with their abusers, unable to seek help.
“It is difficult for everyone to comprehend how vast the impact of coronavirus has had on some people’s lives,” Gary Foxcroft, executive director of the Witchcraft and Human Rights Network, told HuffPost UK.
“As well as deaths and fear of the virus, there has been mass unemployment and an immense social and economic impact.
“When you have this huge amount of uncertainty in people’s lives, people with these beliefs look for someone to blame – a scapegoat.
“Children, women, the elderly and disabled people are the most vulnerable to these kinds of accusations and subsequent abuse.
“There has been a rise in witchcraft accusations and violence against children. It is difficult to monitor and recognise these cases, but based on our years of experience, the consensus is that we are going to now witness a huge rise in these cases at a level never seen before.
“We expect the figure for child abuse linked to faith and belief to have increased exponentially for next year.”
Over the years, there have been high profile cases of children who have been killed by adults who believed in witchcraft and spirit possession. These include the heartbreaking death of Victoria Climbie in 2000. The eight-year-old was murdered by her aunt and her aunt’s boyfriend, who believed she was possessed by an evil spirit.
Foxcroft, who became involved in the issue of abuse linked to witchcraft after going to Nigeria with his wife to build a school for disadvantaged children, told HuffPost UK that the coronavirus lockdown will have heightened pressures, putting vulnerable children at greater risk and cutting them off from support services.
“Children will be at home more with potentially abusive family and extended family members and there will be more risk factors,” he said.
“The potential abuser might be out of work due to coronavirus and struggling for sources of income or turning to drink or drugs or not having the skills to home school children. Coronavirus has created a lot of stress and tension in people’s lives.
“Some people seek a spiritual explanation for all these misfortunes and look towards their leader in their place of worship as to why these things are happening. Some people in that position of power use the theology of Christianity or Islam or other religions to try to explain it by blaming it on the strange behaviour of victims.
“Children who were vulnerable before coronavirus will have become even more vulnerable and they might not have access to services that could help them, such as health workers, social workers and the police.”
Foxcroft explained that belief in witchcraft and spirit possession stems from a conviction that nothing that happens is down to coincidence. “It is a belief that there is a spiritual explanation for all the misfortunes that befall you in life,” he said.
“This can lead to vulnerable children being accused of being the malevolent forces who are creating all sorts of misfortunes and tragedy in people’s lives.”
Mardoche Yembi, now 29, was eight when he was sent to the UK from the Congo for a new life with his aunt and uncle. His mother had died a year earlier.
His family thought he would benefit from a better life in the UK – but instead he was accused by his relatives in Britain of having caused his mother’s death through witchcraft, and they intended to send him back to the Congo for exorcism.
Yembi, one of seven children, explained to HuffPost UK that the accusations began after his aunt became unwell and began having disturbing dreams.
She sought the advice of her pastor in church and was told someone in her home was to blame.
Yembi says being told he was responsible for his mother’s death at such a young age affected him deeply.
“I was blamed by my aunt and uncle for anything bad that happened.” he recalled. “If their baby cried, they said it was my fault and they accused me of flying during the night.”
Yembi was terrified when his aunt and uncle said they wanted to send him back to the Congo for exorcism as he had witnessed first-hand what happened to children accused of witchcraft.
“I was only young when I lived in the Congo but I had seen kids accused of witchcraft beaten up badly, put in a car tyre, had petrol poured on them and burned alive.
“I feared I would suffer the same fate if I was sent back there.”
Luckily for Yembi, his aunt and uncle told his school why they planned to send him back to the Congo. Social services were alerted and he was plucked to safety.
Now living in north London where he works as a painter and decorator, Yembi admitted the experience had made it difficult for him to trust people.
He says he cannot imagine how awful life must be for children trapped in abusive households and blamed for causing coronavirus-related problems through spiritual forces.
“Life will be so tough for these children,” he told HuffPost UK. “They will be almost locked up in their homes, and it will be very difficult for them to leave the house.
“In countries such as where I come from, people don’t believe things like coronavirus and all the financial problems it has caused just happen. They have to find someone to blame and link it to witchcraft.
“I can’t imagine how terrible it must be for children living in this situation now. The times we are going through with coronavirus restrictions, it will be a lot worse for them.
“Everyone is really busy so their plight will be even more hidden.”
Yembi, who does voluntary work to raise awareness about child abuse linked to witchcraft, said there is a mistaken belief in the UK that the problem is confined to other countries.
“People are afraid to talk about it,” he said.
“What worries me is that these children suffering the abuse won’t be able to leave the house and, with the virus, they will be even more scared.
“I fear there will be a lot of young people suffering abuse linked to witchcraft right now and I think we will only find out about the harrowing stories once we come out of this pandemic.”
Globally, there have been cases of people of people being blamed for being a cause of the virus. In India, a priest beheaded a man as a human sacrifice to end the pandemic.
Inspector Allen Davis, who leads the “honour, belief and sex (crime and vulnerability)” team at London’s Metropolitan Police, told HuffPost UK: “What happens in countries of origin will have an impact internationally as well as nationally.
“People are connected through social media and might emigrate and bring their beliefs with them. In many ways, these beliefs become stronger over time.”
But Davis says it is important to underline that there is nothing wrong with people having beliefs in witchcraft and spirit possession in themselves.
“Belief in the spiritual realm and good and evil forces are very common globally,” he said.
“There is a fundamental right to hold these beliefs. But it is unacceptable for abuse to take place and for people to be branded or labelled as witches or having been possessed.
“Those who share these beliefs will see that person as evil.”
Children who are perceived to be different are most vulnerable to accusations of being a witch or possessed, added Davis.
These “differences” can be anything from physical marks to behaviour and disabilities. They can include youngsters with epilepsy, autism, a learning disability or a stammer, as well as children who are exceptionally clever or hyperactive.
Even things like bedwetting or a child talking to themselves or sleepwalking can lead to them being singled out. Anything that sets them apart from what is considered to be the norm can be seen as a sign of them being possessed or a witch.
Davis added: “Seen through the lens of a spiritual problem, Covid-19 can be seen as a curse, a plague, the anger of god as a punishment.”
Increasing understanding of child abuse linked to faith and belief is paramount when it comes to tackling it, he argues. He said people shouldn’t underestimate any warning signs, particularly those that can be spotted in the school environment.
“We want to support professionals and schools to identify children at risk. They need to look out for trigger words such as a child saying: ‘Mum says I am evil,’ or talking about magic.”
He added that he recognised schools are facing an unprecedented challenge as it is. “There is a myriad of safeguarding concerns such as child neglect, child abuse and the emotional and psychological toll lockdown has had on all children,” he said.
″[But] this is another issue that needs to be identified and addressed.”
He added that it was important encourage people to have open discussions about child abuse linked to witchcraft. “These issues have always been hidden and the data related to prevalence has never reflected the true levels of concerns we face,” he admitted.
“Professionals don’t necessarily feel comfortable talking about these issues with affected communities and people don’t want to talk about them because of honour and shame.”