National Action Plan on child abuse due to faith or belief

In response to a National Action Plan convened in 2011 to tackle child abuse due to faith or belief, today I chaired a meeting involving a variety of child protection experts from different disciplines that created the South West Forum of Child Abuse Within Belief Culture and Faith.  It’s intention was to raise awareness and to encourage practical steps to prevent child abuse due to faith or belief.

Most of us remember the Victoria Climbie case – she was aged 8 and horrifically tortured over a long period of time and eventually killed by her guardians. The belief behind her killing was that she had been possessed by evil spirits. Nationally not many cases have come to such public attention, although many authorities suspect that far more goes on than we know about. A government study commissioned in 2006 concluded that belief in possession by evil spirits and witchcraft is widespread and was not confined to particular countries, cultures or religions – or even recent migrants to this country. The National Action Plan aims to address various kinds of child abuse due to faith or belief in witchcraft, spirit possession, daemons or the devil, the evil eye or djinns, dakini, kidoki, ritual or muti murders and use of fear of the supernatural to make children comply with being trafficked for domestic slavery or sexual exploitation.

There’s a huge challenge among statutory agencies in both the identification, analysis and assessment of risk to children surrounding this subject.

A social worker who has spent some years working with families and raising awareness of these matters says that “we only know these cases that people tell us about so we don’t know the full extent of the problem.” He cites the less dramatic behaviour that can be seen as the start of something on this continuum. One case that had a particularly subtle beginning involved a child being declared as possessed by the family who called in spiritual advisers. They started by saying that the child needed praying for. Then the child was got up several times in the night to be prayed for and then the situation escalated to the child being made to drink quantities of oil and so on into physical abuse. Graphic evidence was shown on a recent BBC documentary from the Congo showing ‘pastors’ promising to deliver children accused of being witches or being possessed in return for payment. The understanding was this is a growing scam. In one scene a boy aged 6 was heavily beaten and forced to drink hot oil to help rid him of a telephone in his body which was said to communicate with evil spirits.

An organisation called The Witchcraft and Human Rights Network offers an online information resource. It’s founder, Gary Foxcroft, makes the salient point that professionals really lack awareness of this issue. He says “if you mention witchcraft to the average person on the street they think of Harry Potter, but it’s here in the UK in the 21st century and there is a chance that professionals could be working next to people with these beliefs.”

In an article by Shahid Naqvi writing in Professional Social Work Magazine he quotes Eleanor Stobart who wrote the 2006 report as saying “although Christianity appears to be the main religion within which witchcraft is practised, it has also been identified in families of Muslim, Hindu and Pagan faiths.”  Her analysis of the background of child victims (47 cases during her period of research) indicates many of them originate from the Congo with Nigeria and South Asia the next highest locations, followed by the Caribbean.

Our group today concluded that not only was this subject of high importance, but the research available and data required would take much time and effort to compile. So we set ourselves a years programme to culminate in a major conference engaging faith groups, academics front line professionals in the field of child protection, law enforcement and community groups. There’s so much that isn’t known or hasn’t had a light shone on it yet. In large urban areas such as London this type of abuse is less unusual but in significant urban areas outside of London the received wisdom is that this activity must exist – but we just haven’t had the time, the effort or the awareness to identify it.

I have recorded a podcast on child abuse due to faith or belief which will be released soon. I’ll keep you posted on how we’re going. If you have any information or comments do let me know.

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