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Children accused of witchcraft in the Democratic Republic of Congo

This week’s court case surrounding the murder of a fifteen year-old boy, Kristy Bamu, in London, has once again highlighted the problem of children being accused of witchcraft, a phenomenon which has been growing in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The boy’s killer was originally from the DRC, where belief in sorcery and witchcraft is extremely common. Children are thought to have close ties to the spirit world, which leads them to be accused of sorcery, especially when difficulties are experienced by families.

With widespread poverty in the DRC (55% of people live on less than a dollar each day) and a high risk of disease (life expectancy is just 49 years), families frequently suffer tragedies such as sudden deaths or periods of hunger following poor harvests. Looking for reasons why these events may have occurred, behavioural changes or oddities in children can be interpreted as a sign of evil possession or witchcraft, believed to be the source of the problems. The final blow for an accused child comes when a local pastor confirms the witchcraft or ‘kindoki’, as it’s known locally. If an exorcism cannot be afforded, the child is often cast out of the house. According to estimates from the United Nations, there are currently 20- 25,000 street children in the capital Kinshasa. Many have arrived on the streets after having being accused of witchcraft.

In its 2006 special report on this issue, Save The Children found there was no “typical” profile for a family where children were more at risk of being accused than others.  The charity also concluded that, at a basic level, the problem stems from the extremes of violence and traumatic past of the DRC, where the safety net of health or social welfare services has disappeared. The report also highlights the rise of religious movements fuelling violence against children, pointing to the many churches which operate on a profit-making basis and encourage exorcisms “for the purposes of financial gain”. These exorcisms can be extremely brutal, with children being starved, hit, sexually abused and sometimes even killed. The ‘punishment’ is seen as being directed at the evil spirit within, and not at the child.

Over the last few years, the BBC and other media organizations have presented the stories of many children who have fallen victim to accusations of witchcraft. The BBC’s reporter Angus Crawford spoke to one young girl in Kinshasa who had lived in London for three years before being shipped back to the DRC after her stepmother accused her of witchcraft. Speaking little French and none of the local language, the move had left the girl traumatised. In one recent year, the United Nation’s Children’s Agency (UNICEF) recorded 450 cases of child sorcery allegations in just one province alone. Therefore the stories of child killings and abuse, in both Britain and the DRC, are just the tip of a very large and horrifying iceberg.

Laurinda Luffman signature