UNICEF and partners bring hope to children accused of `witchcraft` in Liberia
Accusations of witchcraft are common in Liberia and are predominantly made against women and children.
The level of violence against children in Africa is alarming and it continues to rise. One category of violence against children that is seldom talked about is that of witchcraft accusations and ritual attacks. These forms of violence encompass a range of violations, including accusing children of witchcraft; the ritualized killing of children; mutilation to harvest body parts for magical medicines; infanticide; and mistreating children in the belief they need saving from evil spirits. 
Accusations of witchcraft are common in Liberia and are predominantly made against women and children. A study by UNMIL and OHCHR of human rights violations between January 2012 and September 2015 recorded 31 cases in which 214 people were accused of witchcraft, including 86 children, including children down to the age of four. 
The accused were subjected to trial by ordeal, cleansing, exorcism rituals, expulsion, ostracization and even death. Cases documented by the Study indicated that children were subjected to violence, public humiliation, rejection by their families, social stigma and loss of education and placed under enormous pressure to confess even though they did not understand the meaning of the accusations against them.
Research for the Study found that many of the children accused of witchcraft and abandoned by their families and communities end up in the hands of traffickers or as street children in the larger cities. Anecdotal evidence indicates that the practice of witchcraft is more prevalent amongst certain churches and communities in Liberia such as FULL Gospel and Charismatic churches.
The issue of alleged witchcraft at work in children and adults alike is difficult to prove or disprove by any methods. Thus, the fear of uncertainty in discovering the truth about those accused of witchcraft leads an easy path to violence, ostracization and other forms of social punishment as in the case of little Cathy, 11, a kindergarten student who suffered this horrific violence for far too long.
Little Cathy resides with her foster parents in one of the communities near Monrovia, the capital city. A densely populated slum community with poor sanitation and many other problems.
Cathy was overcome with tears as she explained her ordeal to a team from the Inter-Religious Council of Liberia (IRCL) and UNICEF. “I got into this when I joined an elderly female that took me to a house decorated with mats where I met few other people that I didn’t know. However, I saw that my grandmother is among those people in the house. They chanted spiels that I didn’t understand.”
Cathy narrates that she got into it and started performing with them. In the process, my grandmother requested me to bring my little sister so she can be part of us - something that I totally refused. My sister, during this time became very sick, she was taken from place to place but could not get well until our grandmother told me that she made her sick. I later pleaded with her not to kill my sister.
Cathy’s parents have died some time ago and she is brought up by her foster parents Mr. and Mrs. Peter. The have rescued her from her late father who used to torture her. “When her father was alive, he along with some accomplices decided to sell Cathy because of her alleged involvement into witchcraft activities,” says Mr. Pete. “They were arrested by the Police but they were later released.”
“We were asked by the police and other social Justice actors- through the Ministry of Justice to sign to take custody of little Cathy as caregivers. While the father was alive, he had nothing to do with Cathy wellbeing,” explained Ms. Peter. “We could not put Cathy in school because my husband and I didn’t have the needed fund until an anonymous community member supported to get Cathy in school”. She added, “ Cathy was always defamed, bullied and teased but when the police warned against anyone annoying her, she started having a normal time at school.”
Cathy’s foster father wants her to have a normal life in a safe home free of mocks and teases. The Council of Churches, the Government of Liberia, social work partners, philanthropists, and UNICEF have a lot of work to do. Children accused of witchcraft often suffer public humiliation, forced confessions, and torture. Furthermore, they are forced to ingest traditional ‘cleansing’ medicines, get expelled from their homes, communities and the total Liberian society. They carry the scars of isolation, neglect, and victimization on their mental health for their entire lives.
UNICEF in Liberia works with IRCL on implementing interventions at community level within charismatic congregations. Working with religious leaders help to address the witchcraft beliefs and accusations to strengthen community monitoring and national response mechanisms for the prevention and response to cases of abuse, exploitation and violence of children and vulnerable young women.
IRCL also provide Spiritual and emotional care and support for parents, children, the elderly, and those experiencing disruption and distress to provide a source of support, peace, comfort, and hope. They provide a heightened focus on hygiene and sanitation in keeping with religious teachings and sacred texts that emphasize cleanliness as an element of holiness. They work with existing community structures to counter all forms of stigma and discrimination associated with transmission of the disease with active promotion of attitudes and behaviours to uphold the dignity and rights of all people.
In 2022, 22 children (8 boys and 14 girls) were accused of witchcraft. The accused children were chained, hair shaved and taken to traditional soothsayers to swear an oath to validate whether they were witches. They were then abandoned at witch doctor covens; police deport or charismatic churches as parents and caregivers refused to accept them back home. IRCL provided the appropriate case management services including psychosocial counselling, interim care through safe homes, medical care, family-based care, and regular follow up to ensure the best interest of the child
With the generous funding from the Government of Japan, UNICEF is working to strengthen and sustain the technical and institutional capacity of IRCL to continuously discourage and prevent harmful practices, stop violence, and abuse against children and promote the preservation of family unity through the protection of vulnerable children. Furthermore, UNICEF provides the technical and institutional capacity needed by key members of the implementing partners, religious leaders, Women of Faith network, youth networks and others to provide care and protection for vulnerable children in the targeted communities.
It is crucial to mobilize religious and non-religious communities to advocate for the prevention of harmful traditional practices and to response to risks affecting family preservation and sustenance of teenage mothers and their children. UNICEF works through the IRCL to ensure all reported children at risk of abuse and neglect have access to prevention and response interventions.
Our work is geared towards ensuring respect and provision of adequate care for the less fortunate children in a setting appropriate to their individual needs, and in the best interest of the child.