Child Abuse Linked to Faith or Belief

Safeguarding Network

February 2024 - 4 minute read

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Faith abuse, which includes practices relating to a belief in spirit possession and witchcraft, is often a hidden crime which is under-reported but can have a significant impact on children.

Child abuse linked to faith or belief is not confined to one faith, nationality or ethnic community. Examples have been recorded worldwide across various religions including Christianity, Islam and Hinduism.

Faith abuse is often considered as part of the group that comes under the umbrella term of harmful practices.

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Definition of abuse linked to faith or belief

Child abuse linked to faith or belief can include a belief in concepts of:

  • witchcraft and spirit possession, demons or the devil acting through children or leading them astray (traditionally seen in some Christian beliefs),
  • the evil eye or djinns (traditionally known in some Islamic faith contexts) and dakini (in the Hindu context);
  • ritual or multi murders where the killing of children is believed to bring supernatural benefits, or the use of their body parts is believed to produce potent magical remedies;
  • use of belief in magic or witchcraft to create fear in children to make them more compliant when they are being trafficked for domestic slavery or sexual exploitation.

National FGM Centre

What do we know?

Research has suggested that in communities where there is child abuse linked to faith or belief, sometimes there is:

  • a community belief in things such as witchcraft; and/or
  • an influential person who promotes ideas such as people being possessed whilst also promoting abusing the child as the solution.

Coupled with this, parents/carers/abusers are more likely to have the belief that what they are doing will save the child, the family or the wider community and therefore it is for the greater good.

Examples of abuse include the child being:

  • beaten;
  • burnt;
  • cut/stabbed;
  • semi-strangled;
  • tied up;
  • or having chilli peppers or other substances rubbed on their genitals or eyes.

They may not be allowed near, or to share a room with, family members and/or be threatened with abandonment. They may also be persuaded that they are possessed. Appropriate medical care, supervision, education, good hygiene, nourishment, clothing or warmth may be withdrawn.

Children who have been singled out in this way can be particularly vulnerable to sexual abusers within the family, community or faith organisation that use the belief as a form of control/threat. Exorcisms/deliverances may include sexually abusive practices such as having to undress and be bathed in the presence of others. Child traffickers may use these beliefs to control children.

It should be noted that a child can be abused as a result of faith or belief without these factors being present and not all those who believe in witchcraft or spirit possession harm children.

Additional vulnerabilities

Children of all ages and gender can be vulnerable to this form of abuse, however, children may be singled out for being ‘different’. Children with behavioural issues and/or additional needs or disabilities may be seen as possessed, as may children who are gifted and talented. If a child has recurring ill-health or is the result of a difficult pregnancy, this may also lead to them being singled out. It may be decided that a particular child in the family is responsible for the  misfortunes/difficulties within the family

Children living with extended family, carers other than their parents, in particular those in private foster placements can be at increased risk of abuse linked to faith or belief.

Spot the signs

Children may or may not know what is happening, however, you may:

  • hear children talking about being evil, having the devil beaten out of them, using specific words, e.g., kindoki, djinn, juju or voodoo;
  • see children’s behaviour change, for example becoming isolated, confused or withdrawn;
  • see a child’s appearance change, often deteriorating. They may start constantly wearing specific items to “protect them”;
  • notice a change in their school attendance, or they suddenly go abroad for a long holiday;
  • notice injuries.

What to do

As with all safeguarding matters, you must do something. You cannot pass it off as being “part of their culture” or worry about disrespecting the family’s beliefs. If you have concerns, you must act and speak with your designated safeguarding lead.

While different faiths/beliefs/communities/families have different practices, the definitions of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, and neglect still hold true.

It may be that you do not feel that you have enough knowledge or experience of a particular family’s culture or practice, however, all you need to ask yourself is: is this harming or likely to harm the child? 

There is always a duty to keep the child safe, but when dealing with any allegation of child abuse linked to faith, belief, and/or cultural practices, agencies must also engage with individuals, families, and in some cases the wider communities, to challenge the belief that underlies the harm. You may have a role in this, however, your primary focus remains the safety of the child.


  • Branded a Witch – Mardoche’s Story

  • Mardoche Yembi – Advice for Professionals

  • Child abuse linked to faith or belief: An overview

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