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Witchcraft Accusations: A Protection Concern for UNHCR and the Wider Humanitarian Community?

By: Gary Foxcroft
Tel: 0845-313-8391
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1. Organisational Background

Stepping Stones Nigeria is a grassroots, child rights NGO that works with partner organizations in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria to protect, save and transform the lives of vulnerable children. A great deal of our work and that of our partners is focused on the issue of child witchcraft accusations and the subsequent abuses of child rights that take place due to them. This paper acts as part of our commitment to sharing our experience of working in this fi eld and promoting a wider understanding of the issue of witchcraft accusations for practitioners, policy makers and organizations working in the fields of humanitarian aid, child protection and human rights.

2. Introduction

"Witch-hunting is like an infectious disease and is slowly spreading to newer areas and solutions will have to be found to eradicate this evil practice"

Stepping Stones Nigeria is based in the city of Lancaster, a place that has witnessed some of the most famous witch trials in UK history. Witchcraft accusations in Lancaster led to the trial and hanging of 10 women and one man in what became known as the Lancashire Witch Trials. Today, nearly 400 years later, cases such as Victoria Climbiè, who was tortured and killed due to witchcraft accusation; Boy Adam, whose mutilated torso was discovered floating in the River Thames and Child B, an eight-year-old child brought to the UK from Angola, who was beaten, cut and had chilli rubbed in her eyes after her aunt and two others believed she was a witch, highlight the fact that such beliefs still abound. However as the UK government's most recent report identifies, witchcraft belief and accusation is "not confined to particular countries, cultures or religions nor is it confined to recent migrants".

At the international level, Stepping Stones Nigeria, along with numerous other civil society organisations around the world, is witnessing a dramatic rise in witchcraft accusations and subsequent gross violations of human rights that take place due to them. However, to date, this phenomenon has received little in the way of concerted attention from the wider humanitarian community. Stepping Stones Nigeria believes that, left unchallenged and inadequately understood, witchcraft accusations will increasingly become an issue of pressing concern for the UNHCR and other humanitarian organisations working with refugees, asylum seekers and trafficking victims in the years to come. This paper therefore explores whether witchcraft accusations are indeed a protection concern for UNHCR and the wider humanitarian community. Following from this, it attempts to identify what action may be taken by such agencies in order to gain a deeper understanding into this issue and develop guidelines for best practice when working on cases involving witchcraft accusations.

Whilst based on Stepping Stones Nigeria's experience of working with so-called child 'witches' in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria since 2005, the paper also takes a broader look at the belief in witchcraft around the world, identifies key groups that are at risk of witchcraft accusations, outlines where witchcraft accusations may be most likely to occur, analyses the factors that lead to these becoming a protection concern and finally makes a number of recommendations for policy makers and practitioners working on this issue.

Before progressing with this paper it may be of interest to the reader to note Stepping Stones Nigeria's official stance on the issue of child witchcraft:

"Stepping Stones Nigeria does not believe that children can be 'witches' and is not concerned with proving or disproving the existence or non-existence of child witchcraft. 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".

3. The Belief in Witchcraft: An Overview

Before any understanding of the phenomenon of witchcraft accusations may be gained it is of central importance to acknowledge that witchcraft is a real belief system and one that is very much rooted in the popular mentality of people. Whilst this belief may be especially deeply held in Africa one should note that the belief in witches is manifest throughout the world.

There are a number of commonalities that occur in the various interpretations of the belief system. The general belief is that certain people possess a mystical power which enables them to separate their soul from their physical body whilst asleep at night and enter into the spirit or witchcraft world. In this world it is often believed that the soul takes the form of an animal where it will then cause all manner of unimaginable horrors and destruction. For example, among the Ga of Ghana, the spirits of witches are believed to leave their bodies during sleep at night, glide through the air on the back of an owl or some other creature, often followed by brilliant balls of fi re, and cluster in a warlock's meeting where the soul of the chosen victims are ritually eaten, after which these victims die.

Joint research by Stepping Stones Nigeria and our partner NGO, the Child Rights and Rehabilitation Network (CRARN), has highlighted that the belief in child witches in Akwa Ibom State, Nigeria cuts across all facets of society, including the literate and illiterate, the wealthy and poor, the law enforcement agents, social welfare workers, law makers and most specifi cally the leaders of revivalist Pentecostal churches. Such people believe that a mysterious, spiritual spell is given to a child through food and/or drink. The child who eats this spell, is then called out in the night where his/her soul will leave the body to be initiated in a gathering of witches and wizards. The initiated child will then have the spiritual power to cause widespread destruction, such as murdering innocent people and causing diseases like HIV/AIDS, malaria, hepatitis, typhoid and cancer. All accidents, drunkenness, madness, smoking of marijuana, divorce, infertility, and misfortunes are perceived to be the handiwork of these so-called child 'witches'. However, as Daniel Offi ong notes, witchcraft beliefs among the Ibibio in Nigeria are of such a nature that it is impossible to establish whether witches exist or not - the matter is supra-empirical.

Belief in witchcraft can be conceptualized as an attempt by people to rationalize the misfortunes occurring in their life; it shapes perceptions and provides an answer to 'why me?' when disaster strikes. Put simply it provides an explanation for what would be otherwise unexplainable. Witchcraft accusations can therefore be seen to follow the patterns of tension and conflict in societies. Indeed the UK Ambassador to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Andy Sparks, when speaking about the child witch crisis in DRC purported that:

"Accusations of sorcery are a convenient excuse for a particularly cruel way of dealing with poverty, and religion is used as its pretext. Cruelty like this should be punished, regardless of whether it is executed in the name of religion or not. It is not natural for Congolese to behave in this way. It is a recent phenomenon. The consequences of war and the subsequent massive aggravation of poverty are being exploited by a small number of pastors from private, revivalist churches who use vulnerable children as a platform upon which to exploit families that are struggling to feed themselves".

It is of great importance for practitioners to understand that witchcraft belief itself does not necessarily translate into a protection concern. Rather it is the point where this belief system leads to accusations of witchcraft that the issue becomes particularly problematic, as it is at this juncture that violent abuses of human rights often take place. Indeed Stepping Stones Nigeria believes that the very act of accusing a person of witchcraft constitutes an act of emotional and psychological abuse and, as such, should be considered as a protection concern that may require some form of intervention.

4. Groups at Risk of Witchcraft Accusations

. . .Continue to read rest of article (PDF).

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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