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Statement of Guiding Principles and Best Practice for Working with Children Stigmatised as 'Witches'

By: Gary Foxcroft
Tel: 0845-313-8391
Email Stepping Stones Nigeria

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The rights of an increasing number of children around the world are being violated due to the belief in child 'witches'. Widespread cases have been highlighted in African countries such as DRC, Angola and, most recently, Nigeria. Numerous cases of children having been stigmatised as witches and abused have also been identifi ed in the UK.

Stepping Stones Nigeria believes that, left unchallenged, this belief system has the potential to spread much further than it's currently relatively limited scope. This brief paper acts as part of our commitment to sharing our experiences and promoting a wider understanding of the issue for policy makers, individuals and organisations. It is based on our experience of working with so-called child 'witches' in Akwa Ibom State, Nigeria since 2005.

Stepping Stones Nigeria's Stance on the Belief in Child Witches

The belief in child witches is a very sensitive and complex subject area with a number of, often deeply conflicting, views held on the belief by different stakeholders. Experience has taught us the importance of listening carefully to and acknowledging the importance of all sides of the debate. Stepping Stones Nigeria does not wish for our work to contribute towards the demonisation of any particular community but feels that it is our duty to publicise and challenge the gross violations of child rights that often take place due to the belief in child witches. As such, Stepping Stones Nigeria feels the need to outline our stance on the issue as follows:

"Stepping Stones Nigeria does not believe that children can be 'witches'. However, Stepping Stones Nigeria acknowledges the right of individuals to hold this belief on the condition that this does not lead to the abuse of child rights as outlined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC)".

Working with Children

All interactions with children should be carried out with the best interest of the child at heart and should be grounded in the principles contained within the UNCRC.

Good Practice

1/ On initial contact many stigmatised children may be severely traumatised and medically unfit with symptoms such as severe malnutrition, worms, typhoid, malaria etc. This is often due to severe neglect and beatings by parents/carers and lack of access to health care on the streets. It is important that immediate medical assessment of such children takes place and that these needs are addressed by trained professionals as a matter of urgency.

2/ After long periods of physical, emotional and psychological abuse many children will have come to believe that they are indeed 'witches'. It is important to make the child believe that you do not believe that he/she is a 'witch' and that you instead feel that he/she is a normal child.

3/ Listening to and documenting the child's story and details in a kind, caring and patient manner will help to build up a relationship of trust and respect. Each child should be treated as an individual that is equal to all the other children of the world. Favouritism towards certain children should be avoided at all costs.

4/ Each child should be assigned a specific case worker who assesses and monitors the progress of a child over time. Every effort should be made for this case worker to remain the same so as to enable a trusting relationship to materialise.

5/ Police, social welfare teams and any other relevant government agencies should be informed of each individual cases of children.

6/ The right of the child to decide whether they wish to access support services or live on the streets should be respected at all times. Failure to do this may prevent the child from accessing services in the future and, hence, drive them to traffi ckers etc.

7/ When dealing with a perpetrator of abuse towards the child it is essential to remain calm at all times and never to allow situations to become emotionally charged. Where possible try to ensure a police officer is present and that the child does not become exposed to discussions regarding his/her perceived status as a 'witch'.

8/ Should the child wish to explore the possibility of family reunifi cation then every effort should be made to contact the child's parents and set up a meeting. On successfully reuniting a child with their family, a contract of care should be signed between the family and police to ensure that the family take full responsibility for the child. Regular monitoring and report writing of progress of child must then take place to ensure that the family are meeting their responsibilities. Should assistance be needed by the family to support the child then small grants may be offered in order to support meeting the child's needs.

9/ Never make promises to a stigmatised child that you cannot keep.

The Role of the Church

Stepping Stones Nigeria recognises that the vast majority of churches repudiate the abuse of children in any shape or form. As a secular, humanitarian child rights organisation we seek to engage in constructive dialogue with the Christian community wherever possible. However, it is our belief that the Church and wider Christian community has a moral responsibility to condemn the role of certain churches in preaching about the belief in child 'witches' and to work with all stakeholders to find a lasting solution to the gross violations of child rights that often take place due to this belief.

It is the duty of all churches to ensure that children are protected from harm and that their teachings do not lead to the abuse of children. Stepping Stones Nigeria believes that the act of openly stigmatising a child as a witch constitutes the emotional and psychological abuse of the child and, as such, can have no place in a modern, caring church. In order to prevent such acts from taking place churches need to have appropriate arrangements in place for safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children. All pastors, apostles, elders and other clergy members should have received adequate theological and child protection training from a recognised and respected source and should be made to sign a document outlining their commitment to child protection.

Stepping Stones Nigeria requests that larger networks such as Christian Associations and Pentecostal Fellowships, who are morally bound to ensure that their members do not promote beliefs that lead to the abuse of children, should regulate the activities of member churches to ensure that child protection is placed as a primary concern.

The Role of Government

Stepping Stones Nigeria believes that it is the role of government to regulate the activities of churches in order to ensure that children are protected from abuse in places of worship. A specific agency should be created and entrusted with the power to monitor and, where necessary, shut down churches found to be abusing children and promoting superstitious beliefs. Churches should be required to meet the following criteria before they are granted a licence to operate by this agency:

1/ Policies and procedures to protect the rights of children are in place.

2/ Evidence of theological training in the form of recognised certificates is provided by all pastors, apostles, elders and other clergy members wishing to preach in the church.

3/ A commitment to providing an annual report and accounts is made.

Any churches found to be stigmatising children as 'witches' and/or failing to meet the standards above should be closed down immediately with assets being confi scated and handed over to the agency.

The Role of Individuals and Civil Society

The role of individuals and civil society in promoting and protecting the rights of so-called child 'witches' cannot be underestimated. Stepping Stones Nigeria believes that all citizens have a moral obligation to protect children from harm, regardless of whether they believe or not that children can be 'witches'. All incidences of abuse of children in any environment must be reported immediately to the police and any other relevant organisations. By "turning a blind eye" to such cases of abuse, individuals only allow for the cycle of violence and abuse to continue and, as such, are therefore complicit in this and future abuse.

Voices for civil society such as academics, NGOs, international development agencies and activists should use every tool available to them in order to advocate for the rights of so-called child 'witches' until government and church eradicate the abuse of children that takes places due to this belief. This may include reporting all stories of abuse to local, national and international media, signing of petitions, calls for boycotts of funding to specific states/countries, lobbying agencies such as the United Nations and African Union to exert pressure on guilty parties and lobbying foreign investors to divest from states/ countries known to still be allowing such abuse of child rights to flourish.

Stepping Stones Nigeria understands that it often takes great courage and faith to challenge such deeply held beliefs and common practices but feels that it is our moral and ethical duty, as citizens of the world, to highlight and challenge the horrific abuses of innocent children are increasingly taking place around the world due to the belief in so-called child 'witches'. We hope that you may join hands with us to prevent this suffering from happening and bring lasting hope to many more of our children.

Gary Foxcroft has wide-ranging expertise working with Children Accused of Witchcraft. Mr. Foxcroft practices his specialty principally in Nigeria and the UK, but is available for consultation internationally. With degrees in Social, Cultural, Environmental and Developmental Studies from Derby and Lancaster Universities, he is uniquely qualified to detect the signs of Child Abuse linked to witchcraft accusations.

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