Faith abuse

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

This may occur in many forms, including physical, emotional, sexual abuse or neglect. This includes:

  • ‘honour’ based violence
  • belief in concepts of witchcraft and spirit possession
  • sexual assault and rape used as tools of control
  • 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 muti-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

See also:

‘Honour’ based violence

Female Genital Mutilation

Hate crimes

Forced Marriage

Definition

“The term ‘belief in spirit possession’ is the belief that an evil force has entered a child and is controlling him or her. Sometimes the term ‘witch’ is used and is the belief that a child is able to use an evil force to harm others.

There is also a range of other language that is connected to such abuse. This includes black magic, kindoki, ndoki, the evil eye, djinns, voodoo, obeah, demons, and child sorcerers. In all these cases, genuine beliefs can be held by families, carers, religious leaders, congregations, and the children themselves that evil forces are at work.

Families and children can be deeply worried by the evil that they believe is threatening them, and abuse often occurs when an attempt is made to ‘exorcise’ or ‘deliver’ the child. Exorcism is the attempt to expel evil spirits from a child.”

Spotting the signs

Vulnerabilities include:

  • isolation
  • reoccurring health difficulties
  • difficulty developing relationships
  • reduction in attendance and/or attainment
  • low weight or sudden weight loss
  • injury
  • views on possession and/or demons
  • self-depreciating language
  • parental mental ill health
  • belief in evil spirits and possession
  • scapegoating
    • A child could be singled out as the cause of misfortune within the home
    • Bad behaviour, attributed to spiritual forces
    • a child being disobedient, rebellious, overly independent, wetting the bed, having nightmares or falling ill
  • physical differences; a child could be singled out for having a physical difference or disability
  • gifts and uncommon characteristics; If a child has a particular skill or talent, this can sometimes be rationalised as the result of possession or witchcraft. This can also be the case if the child is from a multiple or difficult pregnancy

What you can do

Tackling this kind of abuse must be focused, as with all kinds of child abuse, on keeping the child safe and bringing the perpetrators to justice, but it must also involve emotional and intellectual engagement with those individuals, families and in some cases faith or other communities whose belief underlies the harm. Be tolerant of people beliefs, but challenge and report where these beliefs lead.

While different faiths have different practices, the definitions of physical, emotional, sexual abuse and neglect still hold true. If you are unsure, seek advice.

Know what to do

  • there should be a multi-agency approach to faith abuse, this will usually require medical professionals and children’s social care
  • any concerns you have should be raised with the designated safeguarding lead and possibly the police
  • take action – and keep taking action until you know they’re safe

Resources

  • Branded a Witch – Mardoche’s Story

    An animation on Mardoche’s childhood in the UK where he was accused of being a witch by his aunt and uncle published by the National FGM Centre.

  • Mardoche Yembi – Advice for Professionals

    Mardoche gives advice to professional about how to work with children who have been accused of witchcraft. This video follows the animation of Mardoche’s life in the UK, where he was accussed of being a child of Kindoki by his Aunt and Uncle.

    Produced by the National FGM Centre

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  • Training resources for DSLs to use in team meetings
  • Reference documents for additional information
  • Handout for school staff summarising faith abuse
  • Quiz to test staff understanding
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