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Panorama: Nigeria

Cases of children accused of ‘witchcraft’ rising in parts of West and Central Africa

Imagen del UNICEF
© UNICEF/Nigeria/2009/Nwakanma
Children accused of witchcraft and rejected by their families play cards outside a shelter run by the Child Rights and Rehabilitation Network, a UNICEF-supported non-governmental organization in Akwa Ibom State, Nigeria.

AKWA IBOM STATE, Nigeria, 28 July 2010 – One child is given a slice of mango and is asked to commit murder in return. Another admits to killing 800 people while flying with other witches on a piece of tree bark.

These ‘confessions’ are dangerous and highly revealing. The number of children accused of being ‘witches’ in parts of Africa is rising, and so is the number of children suffering extreme physical or psychological violence as a result.

While such stories often attract media attention, this difficult and complex topic is little understood.

Vulnerable children are accused

‘Children Accused of Witchcraft,’ a new report from UNICEF’s Regional Office for West and Central Africa, uses anthropological studies and reports from aid agencies to shed light on accusations against children.

Imagen del UNICEF
© UNICEF/Nigeria/2009/Nwakanma
Ostracized children play outside a residence where they are sheltered by the Child Rights and Rehabilitation Network in Akwa Ibom State, Nigeria.

According to the report, accusations seem to arise from ‘multi-crisis’ situations and usually affect children who are already vulnerable.

"Many social and economic pressures, including conflict, poverty, urbanization and the weakening of communities, or HIV/AIDS, seem to have contributed to the recent increase in witchcraft accusations against children," said UNICEF Regional Child Protection Adviser Joachim Theis. "Child witchcraft accusations are part of a rising tide of child abuse, violence and neglect, and they are manifestations of deeper social problems affecting society."

Risk factors highlighted

Belief in witchcraft is widespread in Africa, as in other parts of the world. However, until recently, violent allegations of witchcraft were not typically levelled against children. In several Central African countries, in particular, there are now alarming numbers of killings of adults accused of being ‘sorcerers’ and a growing recent phenomenon of witchcraft accusations against children and adolescents.

Imagen del UNICEF
© UNICEF/NYHQ2007-0350/Nesbitt
A 10-year-old boy who is living with HIV stands in the window of a local NGO in Ibadan, south-western Nigeria. Social pressures, including HIV/AIDS, seem to have contributed to the recent increase in witchcraft accusations against children in parts of Africa.

‘Children Accused of Witchcraft’ highlights the factors most likely to contribute to such accusations. Becoming an orphan and being raised by relatives is a risk factor, for example, as is the arrival of a step-parent.

Character traits that suggest aggression or a solitary temperament, physical deformities or conditions such as autism can also be dangerous in this respect. And it seems that most of those accused are boys.

Exploitation for financial gain

Christian preachers, particularly from charismatic Pentecostal churches, have become part of the already-rich mix of culture and tradition in Central Africa. In some instances, preachers have reportedly reinforced beliefs about witchcraft for financial gain.

Whipping up emotions and charging families for the exorcism of their children, these preachers have turned the suffering of children into a lucrative business.

In addition, those accused of witchcraft often face legal challenges. In several countries, witchcraft is regarded as a criminal offense; both children and adults accused of the practice can be convicted to prison sentences.

Legal reforms needed

The UNICEF report suggests several strategies to protect children who face these risks. Essential steps include conducting studies into local beliefs and practices to better understand the source of accusations, as well as engaging with communities and traditional and spiritual leaders.

The report also suggests a series of legal reforms, such as the de-criminalization of witchcraft, to better protect children. It notes, as well, that there should be greater access to social welfare for those who are marginalized and living on the streets.

"While witchcraft accusations against children are linked to certain cultural and religious reasons, the response to these forms of child abuse are no different than the response to other forms of violence and neglect of children," said Mr. Theis.

A comprehensive response

According to ‘Children Accused of Witchcraft,’ the basic components of a comprehensive response and prevention system include:

  • Research to get a good understanding of the phenomenon and its causes
  • Care and protection for children who have been victims of abuse
  • Awareness-raising, education and mobilization regarding child abuse among the general population, professional groups, and political and religious leaders
  • Legislative reform and more effective law enforcement.

But why does a 16-year-old boy risk his life by ‘confessing’ that he would kill in return for a mango slice? The report concludes that abandoned children find it hard to find their place in the world. Their ‘confessions’ often reflect heartfelt desire and regret as these children stand on the margins of society, wishing for a full stomach, respect and simple dignity.



Related links

UNICEF report: 'Children Accused of Witchcraft: An anthropological study of contemporary practices in Africa' [PDF]

UNICEF and partners bring hope to children accused of ‘witchcraft’ in Nigeria

Scapegoating the most vulnerable in the Central African Republic

News note: UNICEF and Religions for Peace release guide for religious communities

Child Rights and Rehabilitation Network website
(external link, opens in a new window)