Witchcraft is the exercise of alleged supernatural powers to control people or events, usually through sorcery and magic. Recently, in many African communities children are being branded as witches. This has shocking effects on the way they are treated and leads to severe abuse and neglect.
It is unclear which children are more likely to be considered witches, but they are usually children with disabilities and learning difficulties, children living away from home or on the streets, ‘naughty’ children, those whose parents have been branded as witches and those who are orphans.
Cases of child abuse as a result of suspected witchcraft have been reported in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola and most prominently Nigeria. The number of abandoned and abused children is especially high in the Akwa Ibom state. Out of 104 child trafficking victims rescued in Nigeria during the last quarter of 2006, 53 were from there.
It is clear that allegations of witchcraft lead to abuses of human rights, rejection from the community, violence and even death. Children who are accused of being witches often have nowhere to go and fear for their lives. Being cut off from a community’s protection makes them very vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation; street children often just ‘vanish’. According to research, many of them are trafficked to Gabon and Equitorial Guinea to work on plantations. Girls are especially vulnerable to trafficking into the sex industry and into domestic servitude in their own country or around Africa and Europe.
Surprisingly, trafficking does not only occur to street children. Families who believe their children are witches are highly likely to sell them in order to either misguidedly protect them from the community or to free themselves of the associated ‘evil’.
Many children try to escape the dire conditions they live in as a result of witchcraft accusations and often find themselves in situations of exploitation. In many parts of Nigeria, trafficking, servitude and child labour is synonymous to the “Akwa Ibom people”. Children cannot escape because they fear their traffickers and the stigma they face back home. Experience of trafficking is bound to lead to long term trauma that only fuels beliefs of witchcraft.
NGOs working in the field recommend raising public awareness, as campaigns very rarely reach rural areas where trafficking is more likely to occur. They propose the promotion of education; staying at school longer reduces the risk of human trafficking. Finally, a stronger legal framework should be developed to protect the rights of children who are vulnerable to exploitation.
To find out more about what you can do in your community visit www.stopthetraffik.org