4.1 Child Abuse Linked to a Belief in Spirit Possession or Witchcraft: Guidance
Research indicates that the belief in ‘spirit possession’ or ‘witchcraft’ is widespread across the world. It is not confined to particular countries, cultures or religions, nor is it confined to new immigrant communities in this country.
Although the number of known child abuse cases linked to accusations of ‘spirit possession’ or ‘witchcraft’ in Britain is small, it is possible that a significant number of cases go undetected. The nature of the abuse can be particularly disturbing and the impact on the child is substantial and serious. Department for Education guidance, National action plan to tackle child abuse linked to faith or belief, states that there are links between ‘spirit possession’ and ‘witchcraft’ and exploitation in that belief in magic or witchcraft may be used to create fear in children to make them more compliant when they are being trafficked for domestic slavery or sexual exploitation (see Child Sexual Exploitation Guidance).
The term ‘spirit possession’ means that a force, spirit, god or demon has entered a child and is controlling him or her resulting in a change in health or behaviour. Sometimes the term ‘witch’ or ‘witchcraft’ is used. This is the belief that a child is able to use an evil force or supernatural powers to harm others. There is a range of terminology connected to such beliefs, for example black magic, kindoki, ndoki, the evil eye, djinns, voodoo, obeah and child sorcerers.
Although both ‘spirit possession’ and ‘witchcraft’ often relate to perceived evil forces, this is not always the case. ‘Spirit possession’ can be understood to include being taken over by ‘the Holy Spirit’, for example, and since the mid-20th century, witchcraft has increasingly been perceived to include both malevolent and benevolent forces, the latter often involving healing.
These beliefs occupy a broad spectrum, and the effects range from harmless to harmful. Belief in spirit possession and witchcraft is not of itself evidence of maltreatment.
In cases of ‘spirit possession’ or ‘witchcraft’ which involve children, the parent/carer views the child as ‘different’ and attributes this to the child being ‘possessed’. This can lead to attempts to exorcise the child. The reasons for being ‘different’ can be varied, and include disobedience, independence, bedwetting, nightmares or illness. In some cases there will be no obvious difference and the child will have been targeted because they are perceived to be ‘spiritually’ different. The attempt to exorcise may involve beating, burning, starvation, cutting/stabbing and/or isolation within the household, all of which are abuse.
Families, carers and the children involved can hold genuine beliefs that evil forces are at work. Families and children can be deeply worried by the evil that they believe is threatening them. There may also be an element of the adult gaining some gratification through the ritualistic abuse of the child, which may even result in the death of the child.
Where there is abuse of children accused of spirit possession or witchcraft, this abuse can be understood using one or more of the four identified forms of child abuse: physical, sexual and emotional abuse and neglect.
Indicators of abuse linked to belief in spirit possession, which may also be common features in other kinds of abuse, include:
There are various social reasons that make a child more vulnerable to an accusation of ‘spirit possession’ or ‘witchcraft’. These include family stress and/or a change in the family structure, a family’s disillusionment with life or a negative experience of migration, and the mental health of the parent/carer.
In cases which involve ‘spirit possession’ or ‘witchcraft’, the child is perceived to be different. A child with a disability may be viewed as different because of their disability, and the disability may be attributed to the ‘spirit possession’ or ‘witchcraft’. The disability may be mild or severe, and may be a physical, sensory or learning disability or mental illness. Disabilities involved in documented cases include:
Action to be taken
While the number of known cases of abuse related to spirit possession or witchcraft is small, professionals should be alert to possible indicators and must follow standard child safeguarding procedures where abuse or neglect is suspected, including those that may be related to a belief in spirit possession or witchcraft (see Neglect Guidance).
Key considerations in dealing with cases of abuse linked to spirit possession or witchcraft are:
- Department for Education, National action plan to tackle child abuse linked to faith or belief (2012)
- Churches Child Protection Advisory Service, Good practice for working with faith communities – spirit possession and abuse (2009)
- Department for Education, A rapid literature review of evidence on child abuse linked to faith or belief (2012)
- Eleanor Stobart, Child Abuse Linked to Accusations of ‘Possession’ and ‘Witchcraft’ (2006)
- The Victoria Climbié Foundation
- NSPCC, Safeguarding children and young people within faith settings (2016)