This week, countless children will stick on a fake nose, grab their mother's broom and don a pointed black hat. The witch is the archetypal Halloween costume and pretending to cast spells on someone is a bit of harmless fun. But nobody would actually accuse them of being a real witch.
Or would they?
To suggest that children have spell-casting magical powers borders on insanity. It is absurd and incomprehensible. It is utterly ridiculous. Yet that is exactly what is happening in many parts of the globe. In fact, it is a phenomenon which is on the rise.
Allegations of child witchcraft are increasingly being levied against children, leading to many youngsters being harmed, abused or killed. Breaches of children's human rights are not uncommon. We've all heard of child marriage, trafficking and sexual abuse. Now we can add 'witchcraft exorcism' to the list.
Unfortunately, the issue has received little attention from politicians, academia or civil society in recent years, despite the human rights discourse rising to be the centrepiece of politics. This is partly because human rights has merely replaced green campaigning as the most fashionable form of activism for wannabe do-gooders and self-aggrandising politicians who need a vehicle for re-election. It is also because there is no systematic information or comprehensive database detailing numbers of child witchcraft accusations.
However, the problem is widespread. Allegations have been documented in all areas of the globe. The majority happen in Africa but others have been recorded in Bolivia, Guatemala, Haiti, India, Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, Syria and many other states. They have even occurred in the UK and France, in areas with large African and Bangladeshi communities.
The idea of a child witch is very much at odds with our traditional perception of a cackling old woman with pointed fingers and warty skin. Children are normally the victims, not the perpetrators. So why have they become the specific focus of witchcraft accusations?
Many accusations begin when an important family member, such as a mother, dies or disappears. The father may then take a new wife and the stepmother might spread the rumour that the child is a witch, due to jealousy or simply because there are too many mouths to feed. The child will then be placed under the care of a church leader who will be well paid to deliver the exorcism, often using violent deliverance rituals.
While such societal reasons partly explain the phenomenon's emergence, most observers prefer to point the finger at religion. In particular, they cite the spread of Christian Pentecostal churches in the past century and the emergence of 'religious entrepreneurs'.
Many doctrines and religions, including Christianity and Islam, support beliefs in possession by supernatural beings such as gods, demons or spirits but Pentecostal churches are well-known for proselytising about the existence of Satan and the use of demonic powers in witchcraft. Such beliefs are not necessarily problematic; it is the practices used to deal with possessions which are. These range from simple religious ceremonies or prayer groups to more physically and psychologically invasive practices such as beating, burning, cutting, semi-strangulation or starvation.
Where religious entrepreneurs play a role is in encouraging the diagnosis of witchcraft both for economic reasons as well as for acquiring more power within their local communities, especially when poverty is widespread. Children are easy scapegoats for poor harvests, loss of jobs by family members and other consequences of poverty or family events in general. Strangely, there are also cases in Africa where accused children were rejected by their families and ended up participating in the diamond rush. In a book detailing child witchcraft allegations, entitled The Devil's Children, Filip de Boeck commented that upon returning home, these children had gained a financial power that greatly exceeded that of their parents and embraced the 'witch' tag as a way to attain independence and avoid parental control.
Whether they embrace it or not, all children affected by unfair allegations of witchcraft need help which they are not getting. Some NGOs, notably the UK-registered 'Stepping Stones Nigeria and the Child's Rights Rehabilitation Network, have tried to raise awareness about the increase of child witchcraft accusations, but the problem is rarely addressed on the ground. They may understand risk factors, geographical contexts and the human rights violations, but there is little evidence of field interventions or policies and strategies to tackle allegations.
Very often, this merely reflects the fact that many activists are driven by the desire to be seen to be helping rather than actually helping, but even genuine activists are hindered because there is no international instrument which specifically references the practices of witchcraft, black magic or divination. Most organisations stick to promoting the rights contained in the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights are also frequently cited, as is the European Convention for Human Rights which protects the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
The belief in spirits, mediums, witches or magical worlds is difficult to comprehend, but people should be free to believe what they want. Problems arise when those beliefs lead to acts of persecution and when there are few mechanisms to ensure that persecution based on those beliefs does not transpire. With allegations of child witchcraft, those problems are transpiring. Most children branded as a witch this week will take it as a compliment to a well-made costume. Let's not forget that for others, it will lead to ostracism, shunning and abuse. For some, it will be a death sentence.