Faith and belief-based child abuse, including practices around ‘spirit possession’ and ‘witchcraft’, is a hidden crime, which makes it difficult to quantify in terms of magnitude. However, from our own experience and in consultation with communities, we know this kind of abuse is under-reported.
Forms of abuse
Abuse can be separated into five different areas;
abuse as a result of a child being accused of being a ‘witch’
abuse as a result of a child being accused of being possessed by ‘evil spirits’
ritualistic abuse which is prolonged sexual, physical and psychological abuse
satanic abuse which is carried out in the name of ‘satan’ and may have links to cults
any other harmful practice linked to a belief or faith
The forms of abuse that follow fall into the four main categories below.
This can involve ritualistic beating, burning, cutting, stabbing, semi-strangulating, tying up the child, or rubbing chilli peppers or other substances on the child's genitals or eyes.
Emotional abuse can occur in the form of isolation. A child may not be allowed near or to share a room with family members, and threatened with abandonment. The child may also be persuaded that they are possessed.
In situations of neglect, the child’s family and community may have failed to ensure appropriate medical care, supervision, education, good hygiene, nourishment, clothing or warmth.
Children who have been singled out in this way can be particularly vulnerable to sexual abusers within the family, community or faith organisation. These people exploit the belief as a form of control or threat.
Where does it happen?
Child abuse linked to faith or belief is not confined to one faith, nationality or ethnic community. Examples have been recorded worldwide across various religions including Christians, Muslims and Hindus.
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.
Abuse may happen anywhere, but it most commonly occurs within the child’s home.
Common factors and causes
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 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.
A child could be singled out as the cause of misfortune within the home, such as financial difficulties, divorce, infidelity, illness or death.
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.
A child could be singled out for having a physical difference or disability. Documented cases included 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
Research suggests that a child living with extended family, non biological parents, 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.
How to report belief or faith-based abuse
There are a numbers 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.