The number of children being abused in connection with religious beliefs such as voodoo and witchcraft has risen by 11% in the last year, figures shared with HuffPost UK reveal.
There were 1,630 potential abuse cases in 2017-2018 linked to witchcraft and demonic possession beliefs in England, up from 1,460 in 2016, described as a “frightening rise” by experts.
But campaigners warn the latest data, published by the Department for Education, is likely to drastically underestimate the true number of children being abused as victims and families are reluctant to speak to children’s social services, who record the data.
Campaigners fear more children could be killed unless preventative action is taken. They point to the well-known case of Victoria Climbie, an 11-year-old girl murdered in 2000 by her aunt and her aunt’s boyfriend, who believed she was possessed by an evil spirit.
Experts are now calling for the UN Human Rights Council to pass a special resolution to recognise child abuse in connection with witchcraft abuses as harmful practices.
Gary Foxcroft, executive director of the Witchcraft and Human Rights Information Network and human rights advocate, became involved in the issue after going to Nigeria with his wife.
“Even those of us who have been working on this issue for years were gobsmacked at the UK figures showing abuse linked to faith or belief – and we know these will only be the tip of the iceberg,” he said.
“The fact that these cases are rising in this country and very little is being done to prevent them is very frightening.”
Dr Charlotte Baker from Lancaster University’s languages department, who has been working with others to get the issue on the UN’s agenda, said: “More than 400 years ago, 12 women were accused of witchcraft and hanged in Lancaster.
“Today, unbelievably, not much has changed. Horrific human right abuses linked to beliefs in witchcraft abound across the world.
“But what many people don’t realise is these cases are happening right here in the UK. The figures are truly shocking but are likely to be an underestimate as local authorities do not have the awareness to spot the likely signs of abuse.”
Baker told HuffPost UK that abuse linked to witchcraft and spirit possession belief happens when a family or community is struck by misfortune, tragedy or bad luck, and look for a scapegoat.
She explained: “In some communities and cultures, when these bad things happen, they cast suspicion that someone is practising magic and influencing the events around them.”
It is most often perpetrated by family members or relatives and in many cases, the abused children have often been “sent by their family to live a better life in the UK,” Baker said.
The academic however underlines the distinction between witchcraft belief, which is not harmful and forms part of everyday life for some people, and when ”those beliefs become harmful and have a real world manifestation”.
“The emotional and psychological abuse of being branded a witch should not be underestimated”
Foxcroft was made aware of a case of a 16-year-old girl in the Lancashire area subjected to abuse after being accused of witchcraft. He said: “This young girl had been trafficked to England by a distant family member who was a pastor and he trafficked her to serve as a domestic servant in his home.
“But when some form of misfortune happened, she was accused of witchcraft and abused, battered, burnt and tortured and had many bruises, cuts and scars.
“She managed to run away and was rescued by a Nigerian woman in the community who got her help and she was relocated from Lancashire to a safe place.”
Foxcroft says abuse can be physical, psychological and emotional. “The emotional and psychological abuse of being branded a witch should not be underestimated.”
However, he says such beliefs don’t always lead to horrific abuse. He told HuffPost UK: “Sometimes, people believe these things and take the child for exorcism or pray for them and that’s it.
“This is not about demonising African and Asian communities but about making sure children are protected.”
Dr Lisa Oakley, chair of the national working group for child abuse linked to faith or belief agrees. She told HuffPost UK: “We are not telling people what they can believe but we are telling them you can’t harm a child because of what you believe.”
Oakley says it is important not to blame particular faith communities and that they are an important resource when it comes to prevention and response to abuse. “We know abuse happens in faith communities as it does outside of these communities. Most faith communities want children protected.
“We don’t want to wait for another child to die. We want to work now to prevent these cases and more intervention needs to be put into place.”
‘I Was Accused Of Causing My Own Mother’s Death’
When Mardoche Yembi was sent to the UK from the Congo to live with his aunt and uncle at the age of eight, his family thought he was heading for a better life.
But living in London soon became a nightmare for Yembi when he was accused of being possessed by evil spirits and causing his mother’s death.
Yembi, now 27, told HuffPost UK: “My mum was ill for a long time and became really sick and died. I was one of seven children and was sent to England to live with my mum’s brother and his wife.”
He explained: “My aunt had not been feeling well and was having terrible dreams. She spoke to the pastor in church and he told her someone in the house was doing these things to her.
“The blame was put on me and I was told I was responsible for everything bad that happened. My aunt and uncle had a baby and if it cried at night, I was told that was my fault and I was accused of flying during the night.
“The pastor told me I was the cause of my mum dying and that was a really painful moment and as a child, that really affects you.”
When Yembi was told by his aunt and uncle they wanted to send him back to the Congo for exorcism, he was terrified.
“In Congo, I had witnessed what happens to children accused of witchcraft,” he said. “I had seen kids get beaten, put in a car tyre and have petrol poured on them and burned alive.
“Over there, accusations of witchcraft are normal. When they think a child is possessed, that child is doomed.
“They are staring death in the face and their parents are powerless as the whole community turns on them.”
Luckily, Yembi’s relatives told the school why they wanted to send him to the Congo, and social services were alerted putting an end to their plans.
Now living in North London and working as a painter and decorator, Yembi admits the experience deeply affected him.
He told HuffPost UK: “It is incredible that so many cases are happening even in the UK. Here, it is a more underground issue while in Congo and other places, it is in your face and seen as normal.
“Children are vulnerable and can’t protect themselves. Hopefully, more people will come out and tell their stories and get supported.”
A government spokesperson said: “Any form of violence or abuse towards children is completely unacceptable and no belief system can justify the abuse of a child.
“Those responsible for child abuse linked to faith or belief are subject to prosecution and our statutory guidance is clear: anyone who has concerns about a child’s welfare should report this to children’s social care or the police immediately.”