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Child Witches in the Democratic Republic of Congo

David Goggins

RDC Researcher David Goggins Investigates

A Belief in Witchcraft

African traditional religion has always included a belief in witchcraft. Even in the 21st century there remains a very real fear of the witch. Until recently it was normally adults who were ostracised or punished by the community due to the belief, or at least the accusation, that they had caused harm by supernatural means. In recent years there have been detailed reports published by organisations such as UNICEF, UNHCR, Save the Children, Stepping Stones Nigeria, Human Rights Watch and other credible sources on a rapidly growing phenomenon whereby in many parts of sub-Saharan African it is children who have been abused, tortured and even killed following accusations that they are witches. For example, a report submitted to the UN Human Rights Council states:

“Belief in witchcraft is widespread in Africa, as in other parts of the world. However, until recently, violent allegations of witchcraft were not typically levelled against children. In several Central African countries, in particular, there are now alarming numbers of killings of adults accused of being ‘sorcerers’ and a growing recent phenomenon of witchcraft accusations against children and adolescents.”[1]

Typical accusations made against suspected child witches can be seen in a UNICEF report which states:

“The main power attributed to child witches is the ability to inflict harm from the invisible world to the visible. In general, this consists of transmitting an illness to a relative who must be ‘sacrificed’ together with fellow witches. Children are thus accused of causing diarrhoea, malaria, tuberculosis, even HIV/AIDS, and of the fatal consequences that may follow. In addition, they are also suspected of bringing about general misfortune, poverty, unemployment, failure, etc.”[2]

Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)

Countries where children are at risk of being accused of practising witchcraft include Benin, Nigeria, Cameroon, Gabon, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. A UNHCR research paper states:

“Cases of children or women being accused of witchcraft have been documented in many African countries, such as Angola, Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Central African Republic, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, Tanzania, South Africa, Uganda.”[3]

It is in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and especially in the capital city Kinshasa, where this phenomenon has become a particularly serious problem in recent years. In a UNHCR research paper on the subject of witchcraft allegations and the protection of refugees Jill Schnoebelen states:

“In the past, witchcraft accusations in the villages of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) were generally directed at elderly women, with only rare instances of exorcism or abuse resulting. Since the early 1990s, particularly in large towns, accusations have shifted to children, the number of such allegations skyrocketed, and the subsequent treatment has become increasingly violent. It appears to be a phenomenon that has not and does not exist in rural areas, ‘apart from a very few ill-documented exceptions in areas affected by the war.’ Thus, ‘common cultural roots have been distorted from their primary meaning.’ ”[4]

A report on the recent appearance of so-called child witches in the DRC published by the charity Save the Children states:

“Accusations of witchcraft against children seem to take shape during African families’ often violent transition from traditional organisation to urban life. To pastors and parents, child witchcraft represents an ‘invisible order’ that acts according to its own logic and lives alongside the social world. It is important to note that the fusion of the imaginary and the real leads to violent actions against children and even murder.” [5]

A BBC News report notes:

“Although the belief in sorcery is traditional in the Democratic Republic of Congo, as elsewhere in Africa, many people are concerned that children never used to be blamed in such huge numbers. ‘It is a new problem, because when we grew up we never saw this problem of children accused of sorcery. It is only since life became bad,’ said Ange Bay Bay, a children's rights lawyer. When something goes wrong in a family the children are often blamed, she said. So a child can be accused of sorcery when death, an illness or sudden unemployment strikes the home. As Kinshasa's economy and infrastructure collapsed in the last decade, as a result of government corruption and war, so the number of children accused of witchcraft exploded.”[6] 

An Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada issue paper on the situation for street children in the DRC states:

“Some of the organizations that have studied the increase in the number of children living on the streets in the DRC attribute this phenomenon, among others, to war, the deterioration of socio-economic conditions, and the breakdown of family and communal support systems.”[7]

A report from Human Rights Watch posits that the true reasons for the rise in the number of child witches are economic rather than religious. This report notes:

“It is rare that children who live with both biological parents are accused of sorcery. In interviews we conducted with accused children, every one of them had lost one or both parents and had been living with extended family members who were facing extremely difficult economic problems. A Roman Catholic priest who shelters street children in Kinshasa conducted a survey of 630 children accused of sorcery in 2004. Of that number, only seventeen had both parents living. Children in the DRC who have lost one or both parents are traditionally taken into the care of stepmothers or stepfathers, grandparents, uncles and aunts, or older siblings. But numerous organizations that work with children told us that this tradition was being undermined as a growing number of families were being expected to care for their relatives' children while at the same time facing increasing economic difficulties themselves. They told us that some families were simply unable to cope with the care of their relatives' children, but stressed that sending children to the streets would be culturally unacceptable. Accusations of sorcery, particularly by a religious leader, however, provided an excuse for guardians to chase children from their homes. The same Roman Catholic priest who conducted the survey of accused child sorcerers in Kinshasa told us, ‘believe that for the most part, parents or guardians do not necessarily believe it is sorcery. They are just looking for a reason to get rid of the kids, the extra mouths they can't feed. The children are the victims of larger social problems and the breakdown of the family.’ ”[8]

Pentecostal Preachers and Exorcism

A particularly disturbing feature of this phenomenon has been the emergence of self-appointed preachers in churches affiliated with the Pentecostal movement who make a considerable amount of money from “exorcising” suspected child witches. This is commented on in a USAID report which states:

“In today’s circumstances, self-made preachers can easily set up their pulpits and mete out predictions for those seeking an easy fix for their grief and misfortune. When prophecies fail, the preachers might easily blame continued misery on spurious causes, such as witchcraft, often turning on children as the source because they are easy to blame and least able to defend themselves. A family seeking the advice of their preacher might, for example, be told that their handicapped child is causing their continued misery, citing the child’s disability as a clear indication that he or she is a witch.”[9]

The relationship between Pentecostal pastors and allegations of witchcraft is expanded upon in an anthropological study published by UNICEF which states:

“The role of pastor-prophets in these churches seems to be of major importance in the ‘antiwitch hunt’, not only through the possibility of bringing deliverance to people possessed, but also through their ability to identify witches. In several African cities, these pastor-prophets play an essential role in witchcraft accusations against children. Although they are not always at the origin of the accusation – the person is already suspected by the family or members of the community – they confirm and legitimize the accusation.”[10]

This study reveals the commercial nature of the services provided by these pastor-prophets in a section titled “Miracle Merchants” where the author states:

“All the ‘spiritual’ treatments offered by pastors and prophets belonging to Pentecostal, revivalist and other churches require some form of payment. To my knowledge, no church offers these services for free. While the fee may vary from one church to the next, it is generally higher than most people can afford. For example, one Congolese family, for whom the pastor had detected five cases of witchcraft, had to pay the equivalent of €24 plus a piece of sheet metal for each child. Another family had to pay the equivalent of €27 per child, and so on.”[11]

An article published in The Observer also alleges that these preachers see witch-hunting as a business, stating:

“Then there are the new fundamentalist Christian sects, of which there are thousands in Kinshasa. They make money out of identifying 'witches' and increasingly parents bring troublesome children to the pastors. 'It's a business,' says Mafu. 'For a fee of $5 or $10 they investigate the children and confirm they are possessed. For a further fee they take the child and exorcise them, often keeping them without food for days, beating and torturing them to chase out the devil.'”[12]

The appalling nature of these exorcism ceremonies is described in the Human Rights Watch report referred to above which states:

“Many accused children are brought before pastors, cult leaders, or self-proclaimed ‘prophets’ and forced to undergo often lengthy ‘deliverance’ ceremonies in an attempt to rid them of ‘possession.’ Deliverance ceremonies can take place in ‘churches of revival’ (églises de réveil) found throughout Kinshasa and Mbuji-Mayi and rapidly spreading to other cities. The growth in the number of new churches of revival is both a consequence of child sorcery accusations and a cause of new allegations; more than 2,000 churches practice deliverance in Kinshasa alone. Some prophets who run these churches have gained celebrity-like status, drawing in hundreds of worshipers in lucrative Sunday services because of their famed ‘success’ in child exorcism ceremonies. This popularity rewards them for their often brutal treatment of children. Children who undergo deliverance rituals are sequestered inside churches anywhere from a few hours to several days or weeks. Many are denied food and water to encourage them to confess to practicing witchcraft. In the worst cases, children are beaten, whipped, or given purgatives, to coerce a confession.”[13]

In a report to the UN Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur Philip Alston also comments on the treatment of children by such churches as follows:

“Churches and cults that practice exorcism play an especially pernicious role, often condoning victimization and subjecting children to ‘exorcisms’ or ‘deliverance’ ceremonies in which they are forcibly isolated and deprived of food and water. In one emblematic case from Province Orientale, one of the wives of a polygamous man accused her husband’s young son of trying to kill her. The father took the son to be exorcised and a church deacon bound the child while the father and his wife poured boiling water on him. The wife submerged the child in water heated to over 90 degrees. He died of second degree burns. In another case in Katoko, Maniema, an 8-year-old boy died in October 2009 after a local pastor imprisoned him in a ‘prayer chamber’ for 7 days without food.”[14]

State Protection

In a reference to the lack of state protection for these children Philip Alston states:

“There is almost total impunity for such killings, with witnesses or family members reluctant to report such incidents to authorities, and officials all too often turning a blind eye to preventing or investigating the violence.”[15]

Further criticism of the inadequacy of state protection comes from Jill Schnoebelen who states:

“There are apparently thousands of churches in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that make money by performing deliverance ceremonies and these are subject to very little, if any, oversight. The Minister of Social Affairs estimates that there might be as many as 50,000 children being held in churches—often in dismal conditions—as they await exorcism. Despite the adoption of a new constitution in 2005 that outlawed witchcraft allegations against children, law enforcement, judicial and government officials continue to fail to intervene in cases of abuse in homes and churches. Save the Children finds that the government’s inaction has created ‘an indifference that is killing children and exposing them to repeated abuse.’”[16]

Witchcraft and Asylum Claims

The issue of asylum claims resulting from witchcraft accusations is addressed in a UNHCR research paper which states:

“The 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees does not specifically mention witchcraft. However, it may offer grounds to consider witchcraft or witchcraft allegations as qualifying an individual for refugee status because of a ‘well-founded fear of persecution’ due to identification as a member of a ‘particular social group’”[17] 

In a further reference to members of a particular social group (MPSG) this paper states:

“The Australian Government in its study on the linkage between MPSG and witches, however, also confirms that a social group may be created through the immutable perceptions of its persecutors. As a result, children accused of witchcraft can be legitimately considered as members of a particular social group at risk of persecution.”[18]

All reports and documents referred to in this article may be obtained on request from the Refugee Documentation Centre.

[1] United Nations Human Rights Council (25 February 2011) Written statement submitted by Franciscans International (FI), a non-governmental organisation in general consultative status
[2] UNICEF (April 2010) Children Accused of Witchcraft
[3] UNHCR Policy Development and Evaluation Service (January 2011) Breaking the spell: responding to witchcraft accusations against children
[4] UNHCR Policy Development and Evaluation Service (January 2009) Witchcraft allegations, refugee protection and human rights: a review of the evidence
[5] Save the Children (March 2006) The Invention of Child Witches in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
[6] BBC News (17 January 2003) DR Congo's unhappy child 'witches'
[7] Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (March 2004) Democratic Republic of Congo: Situation of Children
[8] Human Rights Watch (4 April 2006) What Future?: Street Children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
[9] United States Agency for International Development (2002) Abandonment and Separation of Children in the Democratic Republic of Congo
[10] UNICEF (April 2010) Children Accused of Witchcraft: An anthropological study of contemporary practices in Africa
[11] ibid
[12] The Observer (12 February 2006) Thousands of child 'witches' turned on to the streets to starve
[13] Human Rights Watch (4 April 2006) What Future?: Street Children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
[14] United Nations Human Rights Council (1 June 2010) Democratic Republic of the Congo (the): Report of the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Philip Alston: Addendum - Mission to the Democratic Republic of the Congo
(A/HRC/14/24/Add.3)
[15] ibid
[16] UNHCR Policy Development and Evaluation Service (January 2009) Witchcraft allegations, refugee protection and human rights: a review of the evidence
[17] UNHCR Policy Development and Evaluation Service (January 2011) Breaking the spell: responding to witchcraft accusations against children
[18] ibid

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