The occasional horror story seeps out, but the fact that significant numbers of children are abused and die because people believe they are bewitched or possessed by evil spirits is not well-known or documented. But when and where this occurs, it's among the most horrific of the dark sides of human behavior. And, though the numbers are very elusive, it seems that the practice is increasing (there are likely many tens of thousands of children involved). And it seems that today many of those accused of being witches are children, while in the past older women were more likely to be the targets.
It seems especially ironic that witchcraft is a part of Christian communities, though most churches recoil in horror at the very idea. Attention to the practice is focused on Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo but it happens in many other countries. In communities where the practice is deeply rooted, Christian communities are deeply divided. Some, often with self-appointed pastors who touch the deep fears and anger within their communities, are part of the phenomenon. But other Christian churches and communities are at the front lines in fighting the practice.
What is involved? The telling is painful. A community gets the idea that a child is a witch, usually because something painful has taken place, for example a death or illness or a calamity. The children so accused are subject to acid burning, they are set alight, hot wax and oil is poured over them. They may be starved to death. Children are beaten to extract a confession. Some are buried alive or drowned. The list goes on and on.
Here is a story (the name is changed) from a reputable advocacy source:
"When her aunt died, 12-year-old Belinda's mother accused Belinda of killing her aunt through witchcraft. She was taken to a church in Kinshasa, where the pastor conﬁrmed that Belinda was indeed a 'witch' and guilty of cursing her aunt. Her mother took her home, where her uncle held her down and ran a burning iron over her back and legs while her mother looked on. When the uncle went to fetch acid to pour on the burns, Belinda ﬂed. She spent the next two years living on the streets, before being rescued by a Christian child-care agency."
It is salutary and sobering to remember that accusations of witchcraft were part of American and other cultures. And the search for explanations of evil and misfortune can evoke superstitious reactions even among sophisticated and educated people. The circumstances of people in poor communities where this occurs are indeed painful and hard to explain.
But, but, none of these explanations of what drives people to cruelty can alter the reality that such abuse of children (or adults for that matter) is one of the most horrific violations of human rights. It goes directly counter to the most fundamental understanding of what surely we understand as the rights of the child: to be protected and treated with love and dignity.
A network based in the United Kingdom with a strong Christian focus, Stop Child Witch Accusations (SCWA) is seeking to enlist the active support of a coalition of churches. The first goal is to publicize what is happening, the second to make clear that it has no place in a civilized, Christian community.
And many small groups are working courageously both to highlight the problem and to help the victims. Stepping Stones Nigeria is a small, Christian-inspired organization that is working in the Delta region of Nigeria to support children who are accused of witchcraft. The organization involves both English and Nigerian leaders. They understand well that change will not be a quick fix. Long term solutions call for changing opportunities so people can look to a better life, as well as changing minds and practices. The group advocates patiently for new laws, then works to ensure that they are enforced in practice. They support model schools, promote more effective teaching methods, and work with universities and the Nigerian State and Federal Government to revolutionize the teaching of reading and writing in every classroom in the country. Stepping Stones believes that solving a complex problem requires a multi-layered, long-lasting solution. It's a good reminder.
Advocacy against witchcraft sounds rather like a simple case of good versus evil. But there are sensitivities here. Horror at witchcraft practice goes way back to the days when foreigners judged societies without much effort to dig deeper, wholly in the light of their own values. They acted without understanding the complexities of community motivations. The results are different kinds of backlash that color individual as well as international relations to this day. It's vital to remember the dark sides in all societies and to avoid language and actions that smack of a colonial or patronizing mentality. Writing off the idea that there may be some validity to possession by spirits is seen as disparaging and patronizing.
Many Christians have some discomfort in using the language of rights. Child rights, especially, generates some backlash, because the language and advocacy can be associated with erosion of respect for and authority of teachers and parents. Some prefer therefore a language and approach that highlights hope that we can nurture children so they can fulfill their destiny as humans created in the divine image. The coalition against witchcraft works with both dimensions: Christian caring and a commitment to human rights and application of law, thus the rights advocated in the Convention of the Rights of the Child. They argue persuasively that human rights are not contrary to the principles of scripture. They are its essence.
Another heartening insight is the recognition that no one person, church, or agency holds the whole solution or answer to a complex challenge like witchcraft. Solutions must come from knowledge, from dialogue to understand what is at work, in culture, faith, and politics, patient work with those involved that listens to their voices, and a thoughtful but determined commitment to the principles of human rights and human dignity.