Fourteen years ago, London’s Metropolitan Police recorded its first case of abuse stemming from accusations of witchcraft against a child. This year so far, it has recorded 27.
The majority of these cases spring from a fundamentalist interpretation of Christianity, blended with other supernatural concepts. NBC News reports:
Most of the cases involve pastors or religious leaders in African communities who have incorporated elements of witchcraft or spirit possession into their version of fundamentalist Christianity. These beliefs are widely held in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo…
This particular commingling of religious traditions has a wide reach and seems to be expanding. Authorities had previously discovered a number of instances of this abuse that are linked to “Christian groups with roots in Western and Sub-Saharan Africa,” but…
… cases involving other faiths, such as Islam and Hinduism, have emerged more recently as authorities have delved deeper.
Activist Kevani Kanda, who explored these types of accusations in the BBC program Branded a Witch, was herself a victim of such abuse. Her own ordeal started at the age of six…
… when her family accused her of being a witch. She was being molested by a relative and the trauma made her wet the bed and sleepwalk.
But instead of trying to find out what was wrong, Kanda’s family were convinced she was possessed by an evil spirit. For the next five years, she was starved, forced to eat her own vomit, beaten repeatedly and given suppositories containing spices to “get rid of the evil spirits.” And the torture occurred in a London suburb.
Kanda’s abuse in London was kept under the radar, but as part of the work for her documentary,
Kanda returned to the Congo… last year and was shocked by what was considered acceptable in mainstream society. Asked how far the abuse went, she said: “How far can your imagination go? I witnessed a four-year-old old boy brought to the church by his mother because he was playing too rough with his brother. The pastor told her [the behavior] was the result of him being possessed and that he was a witch.”
The boy endured a four-day “deliverance,” Kanda said, in which he was starved, forced to drink hot palm oil and prevented from using the bathroom. “The adults were actually laughing,” Kanda said. “They were stepping on his little body, his stomach, saying they were stepping on the spirits.”
Some 20,000 young people live on the streets in the capital of the Congo, Kinshasa; many of these homeless youth were rejected by their family because of witchcraft accusations. And these beliefs have taken root in communities in London, furthered by pastors or other religious leaders who, Kanda says, prey on “vulnerable” people who “are looking for something to hold onto.” The results are brutal and sometimes fatal, such as
… 8-year-old Victoria Climbié, whose guardians tortured and killed her in 2010 after claiming she was possessed by a demon. The Ivory Coast-born girl was burned with cigarettes and forced to sleep in a sealed garbage bag in the bath until she eventually died.
Police have been slow to pick up on these abuse charges. This has been partly due to incredulity: abuse related to witchcraft accusations seemed too outlandish to be countenanced. But, says Detective Superintendent Terry Sharpe,
… the more you come to learn about the cultures and beliefs of other communities, particularly as now they’re moving all around the world, the more people learn about it and have the confidence to report it.”
An additional factor has been sensitivity due to an uneasy relationship between police and minority communities as well as a “sensitivity in confronting various faiths.”
“To a certain extent professionals are quite scared to address these issues within their practical work,” said Mor Dioum, director of the Victoria Climbié Foundation [named for the murdered 8 year old victim mentioned above]. “Often it’s a fear of being accused of being racist or being ignorant of this type of abuse. But the approach must be this, and this is the VCF’s position, no culture or religion must be allowed to override the protection of that child.
Sharpe agreed, saying, “As far as I’m concerned we must not hide behind [fears of racism accusations] — child abuse is child abuse.” And while police are determined to move past these issues to act before another murder occurs, from all indications, they will have their work cut out for them.
Kevani Kanda notes, “it’s a problem that can be dealt with, but it’s not a solution that’s going to come today or tomorrow.” I hope she is right, and that this solution is found sooner rather than later. It’s about time we stop prioritizing beliefs over actual people, especially children.
(Image via Shutterstock)