UNICEF Report Highlights African Child Witchcraft Stigmatisation

 “Pastors are important opinion leaders and have considerable influence over child witchcraft accusations.”

UNICEF has published a new report by anthropologist Aleksandra Cimpric on the problem of children being stigmatised as witches in Africa. The report is nuanced and balanced, and it surveys the reasons for the increasing number of accusations in various contexts. A range of socio-economic factors and religious factors are considered, in particular the transformation of traditional beliefs in new and often dysfunctional circumstances.

The significance of localised forms of Christianity is noted:

Churches, especially those belonging to the Pentecostal and prophetic movement (charismatic, revivalist, etc.), play an important role in the diffusion and legitimization of fears related to witchcraft, and in particular, child witches. The pastor?prophet is an important figure in the process of accusing children of witchcraft, by effectively validating the presence of a “witchcraft spirit”. Pentecostalists, for example, present their faith as a form of divine armour against witchcraft, and they participate actively in the fight against Evil that is incarnated through witchcraft.

Helen Ukpabio (who has targeted this blog, as I previously wrote about here) gets a mention:

…a number of pastor?prophets, including women, have found their calling in the anti?witch hunt, as is the case with Prophet Helen Ukpabio in Nigeria. She founded the Liberty Foundation Gospel Ministries, whose primary goal has become the detection and deliverance of child witches. For these pastor?prophets, “detecting” child witches brings not only money, but also a certain social status and popularity that draws new members and “clients”, and leads to yet more income. Accusations against children therefore form part of this vicious circle of the prophets’ “business” and their status.

There is also a discussion of the efforts of Stepping Stones Nigeria and of CRARN:

SSN and CRARN’s projects have a two?pronged approach: to improve understanding of witchcraft through awareness?raising, and to protect, support and reintegrate children accused of witchcraft. Despite failing to bring down the number of accusations against children – a long?term effort – prevention efforts within families and communities, and setting up education facilities will no doubt help to reduce accusations. Aware of the harmful influence of certain churches, they also lobby to regulate the activities of certain pastors.

These organisations have come under sustained attack from Ukpabio’s followers, and she has sought to have their hostel for stigmatised children shut down.

However, the report also hightlights that pastors could be a positive force:

Negotiation and mediation consists of a dialogue between pastors, families, children accused of witchcraft and organizations defending children’s rights. Pastors are important opinion leaders and have considerable influence over child witchcraft accusations. In situations where legal and rights arguments are largely ignored, religious arguments could prove to be more effective.

Interestingly, the report also notes that traditional healers are also responsible for making accusations against children:

A number of traditional healers, or traditional doctors, called nganga in Central Africa, or inyanga or sangoma in South Africa, also claim to be able to combat the occult forces of the invisible world. In the same way as the pastors and prophets, traditional healers take advantage of the ever?present witchcraft discourse. In addition to healing “natural” illnesses with medicinal plants (hence the title, médecin traditionnel), they also offer to heal “witchcraft?related” illnesses. Moreover, they also have the gift of clairvoyance, which enables them to detect witches.

Muslim areas, by contrast, are less affected:

Certain writers believe the difference stems from the ability to translate their religious message. The translation of the Bible into the local language was a priority for early ministers and priests… In contrast with Christian practice, Islam considers Arabic to be a sacred language and has rejected any attempt at translating religious texts into local languages. “Whoever wants to praise God,” comment Christine Henry and Emmanuelle Kadya Tall, “must do it in Arabic, and submit to learning verses at a Koranic school”… In contrast, by putting sacred texts within everyone’s reach, Christianity has facilitated the successful localization of its message and led to the creation of authentic African movements and churches.

Another possible reason is the difference in the perception of Evil in each of the religions. Witchcraft is able to integrate itself so well within Christian discourse because it has been personified and associated with the Devil or Satan…. While it should be acknowledged that in Islam there is reference to a satanic force, it is not attributed to a single figure who personifies Evil.