2.7 Abuse linked to faith or belief
This regional policy/ procedure in intended to help raise awareness of abuse linked to faith or belief and to encourage practical steps to be taken to prevent it. The policy/ procedure is not about challenging people’s beliefs, but where beliefs lead to abuse that must not be tolerated.
For the purposes of this policy/ procedure the term ‘abuse linked to faith or belief’ includes belief in witchcraft, spirit possession, demons or the devil, the evil eye or djinns, dakini, kindoki, ritual or muti killings and use of fear of the supernatural to make children comply with, for example, being trafficked for domestic slavery or sexual exploitation. Genuine beliefs can be held by children, families, carers and religious leaders that evil forces have entered the child and are controlling him or her. Abuse may occur when an attempt is made to ‘exorcise’ the child.
The beliefs which are the focus of this policy/ procedure are not confined to one faith, nationality or ethnic community.
The number of known cases suggests that only a small minority of people who believe in witchcraft or spirit possession go on to abuse children. However, the children involved can suffer damage to their physical and mental health, their capacity to learn, their ability to form relationships and to their self-esteem.
Abuse may happen anywhere, but it most commonly occurs within the child’s home. Such abuse generally occurs when a carer views a child as being ‘different’, attributes this difference to the child being ‘possessed’ or involved in ‘witchcraft’ and attempts to exorcise him or her. The attempt to ‘exorcise’ may involve severe beating, burning, starvation, cutting or stabbing and isolation, and usually occurs in the household where the child lives although it may also occur in a place of worship.
A range of factors can contribute to the abuse of a child for reasons of faith or belief. Some of the most common ones are listed below:
- Belief in evil spirits: Belief in evil spirits that can ‘possess’ children is often accompanied by a belief that a possessed child can ‘infect’ others with the condition. This could be through contact with shared food, or simply being in the presence of the child.
- Scapegoating: A child could be singled out as the cause of misfortune within the home, such as financial difficulties, divorce, infidelity, illness or death.
- Bad Behaviour: Sometimes bad or abnormal behaviour is attributed to spiritual forces. Examples include a child being disobedient, rebellious, overly independent, wetting the bed, having nightmares or falling ill.
- Physical differences: A child could be singled out for having a physical difference or disability. Documented cases include children with learning disabilities, mental health issues, epilepsy, autism, stammers and deafness.
- Gifts and uncommon characteristics: If a child has a particular skill or talent, this can sometimes be rationalised as the result of possession or witchcraft. This can also be the case if the child is from a multiple or difficult pregnancy.
- Complex family structure/changes in family structure: Research suggests that a child living with extended family, non-biological parent or foster parents is more at risk. In these situations, they are more likely to have been subject to trafficking and made to work in servitude.
In working to identify such child abuse it is important to remember every child is different. Some children may display a combination of indicators of abuse whilst others will attempt to conceal them. In addition to the factors above, there are a range of common features across identified cases. These indicators of abuse, which may also be common features in other kinds of abuse, include:
- a child’s body showing signs or marks, such as bruises or burns, from physical abuse
- a child becoming noticeably confused, withdrawn, disorientated or isolated and appearing alone amongst other children;
- a child’s personal care deteriorating, for example through a loss of weight, being hungry, turning up to school without food or lunch money, or being unkempt with dirty clothes and even faeces smeared on to them;
- it may be directly evident that the child’s parent or carer does not show concern for or have a close bond with the child;
- a child’s attendance at school becoming irregular or the child being taken out of school altogether without another school place having been organised, or a deterioration in a child’s performance at school;
- a child reporting that they are or have been accused of being ‘evil’, and/or that they are having the ‘devil beaten out of them’.
All agencies should be alert to the indicators above and should be able to identify children at risk of this type of abuse and intervene to prevent it.
Protection and action to be taken
Any practitioner who comes in to contact with children should be able to recognise evidence that a child is being abused or neglected, and know what to do to safeguard and promote the welfare of a child. This may be the crucial intervention that protects the child from further abuse or neglect. In any situation in which there are concerns for the safety and welfare of a child the Referrals Procedure must be followed.
Abuse linked to a belief in spirit possession can be hard for professionals to accept and it may be difficult to understand what they are likely to be dealing with; it can often take a number of visits to recognise such abuse. In cases of suspected abuse linked to a belief in spirit possession it may be particularly useful to consider the following questions:
- What are the beliefs of the family?
- What is the family structure?
- Are there reasons why the child might be picked on?
- Do I need a professional interpreter?
- What is the preferred language of the child and family?
Practitioners should seek advice if dealing with a culture or set of beliefs that they do not understand, or which are unfamiliar to you. Practitioners need to have an understanding of religious beliefs and cultural practices in order to help gain the trust of the family or community.
An assessment should aim to fully understand the background and context to the beliefs and should involve the particular faith group or person advising the family about the child in order to establish the facts i.e. what is happening to the child. Consideration should be given to asking an independent person to act as an adviser and mediator.
The assessment may include key people in the community especially when working with new immigrant communities and different faith groups. In view of the nature of the risks, a full health assessment of the child should take place to establish the overall health of the child, the medical history and current circumstances.
Any suggestions that the parent or carers will take the child out of the country must be taken seriously and legal advice sought regarding possible prevention. The child must be seen and spoken to on his or her own. The child’s sleeping and living arrangements must be inspected.
In assessing the risks to the child, the siblings or any other children in the household must also be considered as they may have witnessed or been forced to participate in abusive activities.
The accusation of witchcraft dehumanises and criminalises the child thereby opening the door for many forms of abuse including, physical, emotional abuse and neglect while at the same time putting the child at risk of sexual abuse.
Concerns about places of worship may emerge where:
- A lack of priority is given to the protection of children and there is reluctance by some leaders to get to grips with the challenges of implementing sound safeguarding policies or practices;
- Assumptions exist that ‘people in our community’ would not abuse children or that a display of repentance for an act of abuse is seen to mean that an adult no longer poses a risk of harm;
- There is a denial or minimisation of the rights of the child or the demonisation of individuals;
- There is a promotion of mistrust of secular authorities;
- There are specific unacceptable practices that amount to abuse.
Further contacts for advice can be found from the local representatives for some faiths.
- An Exploration of Knowledge About Child Abuse Linked to Faith or Belief (2016)
- National Action Plan to Tackle Child Abuse Linked to Faith or Belief (2012)
- Safeguarding Children from Abuse Linked to a Belief in Spirit Possession (2007) this good practice guidance is archived but still available.
- Eleanor Stobart report 2006: Child Abuse Linked To Accusations of Possession And Witchcraft (2006)
- Unicef study report: Children Accused of Witchcraft
- AFRUCA: Africans Unite Against Child Abuse
There are a number of laws in the UK that allow the prosecution of those responsible for abuse linked to faith or belief. One of the biggest challenges is raising awareness and encouraging victims and witnesses to come forward.
Children Act 1989
Section 47 of the Children Act 1989 empowers LA’s to investigate a referral that a child may have suffered or is at risk of suffering harm. Whilst the Children Act 1989 does not mention the terms witchcraft or spirit possession, it does clarify what constitutes child abuse, which can include harm through witchcraft or spirit possession.
Children Act 2004
Under Section 11 of the Children Act 2004, government bodies and agencies must ‘make arrangements for ensuring that their functions are discharged having regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children.’ This applies to children’s services, Health bodies and Trusts and police authorities (including transport police).