Child Abuse Linked to Faith & Belief
Abuse linked to faith or belief is where concerns for a child’s welfare have been identified which could be caused by a belief in witchcraft, spirit or demonic possession, ritual or satanic abuse features; or when practices linked to faith or belief are harmful to a child. Any abuse that takes place against those who are branded (or labelled) either as a witch or as having been possessed by an evil spirit is unacceptable. Significant harm (including murder) can occur because of concerted efforts to ‘exorcise’ or ‘deliver’ evil from a child or vulnerable adult.
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. Not all those who believe in witchcraft or spirit possession harm children. The number of known cases suggests that only a small minority of people who believe in witchcraft or spirit possession go on to abuse children and adults. Sometimes a faith leader or other influential figure is at the centre, promoting the belief and methods of resolving the supposed problem by harming children. Parents or carers have also been key perpetrators in many of the known cases. Abuse may happen anywhere, but it most commonly occurs within the child’s home.
The list below captures some of the beliefs that can inform the practice of child abuse linked to faith or belief. This is not an exhaustive list and there will be other examples:
- Belief in the concepts of witchcraft and spirit possession, demons or the devil acting through children or leading them astray.
- The evil eye or djinns and dakini.
- 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.
It can take place for some of the following reasons:
- Abuse as a result of a child being accused of being a ‘witch.’
- Abuse as a result of a child being accused of being possessed by ‘evil spirits.’
- Ritualistic abuse which is prolonged sexual, physical and psychological abuse.
- Satanic abuse which is carried out in the name of ‘Satan’ and may have links to cults.
- Any other harmful practice linked to a belief or faith.
The forms of abuse that can occur fall into the four main categories below:
- Physical abuse: Beating, burning, stabbing, cutting, strangling, poisoning, applying oils or chilli powder to genitals or body orifices.
- Emotional abuse: Enforced isolation, blaming and scapegoating, psychological coercion and manipulation, humiliation and constant criticism, demanding the victim stays silent.
- Neglect: Starvation, seclusion, poor personal hygiene and environmental sanitation, inadequate clothing, repeated/regular illness, untreated injuries, irregular attendance at school and/or medical appointments.
- Sexual abuse: Made to perform sexual acts, be subjected to unwanted sexual acts, sexual touching on a child’s body, coerced into child sexual exploitation.
Common Factors and Causes
A range of factors can contribute to the abuse of a child for reasons of faith or belief. Some of the most common factors include:
- Belief in evil spirits: Belief in evil spirits that can ‘possess’ children is often accompanied by a belief that a possessed child can ‘infect’ others with the condition. This could be through contact with shared food, or simply being in the presence of the child.
- Scapegoating: A child could be singled out as the cause of misfortune within the home, such as financial difficulties, divorce, infidelity, illness or death.
- Bad behaviour: Sometimes bad or abnormal behaviour is attributed to spiritual forces. Examples include a child being disobedient, rebellious, overly independent, wetting the bed, having nightmares or falling ill.
- Physical and emotional differences: A child could be singled out for having a physical difference or disability. Documented cases have included children with learning disabilities, mental health issues, epilepsy, autism, stammers, deafness and LGBTQ+.
- 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.
- Complex family structure: Research suggests that a child living with extended family, non-biological parents, or foster parents is more at risk. In these situations, they are more likely to be subject to trafficking and made to work in servitude.
Professionals should be aware of the signs and indicators below that may suggest a child is at risk of, or has experienced, abuse linked to faith or belief.
- Physical injuries, such as bruises or burns (including historical injuries/scaring).
- A child reporting that they are, or have been accused of being, ‘evil’, and/or that they are having the ‘devil beaten out of them.’
- The child or family may use words such as ‘kindoki’, ‘djin’, ‘juju’ or ‘voodoo’. All these terms refer to spiritual beliefs.
- A child becoming noticeably confused, withdrawn, disorientated or isolated and appearing alone amongst other children.
- A child’s personal care deteriorating (for example, rapid loss of weight, being hungry, turning up to school without food or lunch money, being unkempt with dirty clothes).
- It may be evident that the child’s parent or carer does not have a close bond with the child.
- A child’s attendance at school or college becomes irregular or there is a deterioration in a child’s performance.
- A child is taken out of a school altogether without another school place having been arranged.
- Wearing unusual jewellery/items or in possession of strange ornaments/scripts.
Characteristics that increase the odds of a child being abused include:
- Physiological: Chronic illness, physical deformities, epilepsy, extreme ugliness/beauty, learning disabilities, mental health difficulties, autism, down’s syndrome, deafness, albinism.
- Personality traits:Non-conformist, rebellious, disobedient, defiant, highly intelligent, violent, malicious.
- Behaviours: Stealing, nightmares, sleepwalking, stammering, enuresis and bedwetting, soiling, talking to oneself, getting into trouble at school.
- Social set up: Being a twin, being privately fostered, being LGBTQ+, difficult birth for the mother, being an orphan, living in a complex family structure, engaged in domestic servitude, divorced parents.
The impact of abuse linked to faith or belief may not be immediately obvious, but it will certainly impact the child’s mental health and mental growth. The child may speak openly about rituals or parties. The child could become consumed by religion or faith and change their habits; these could be very subtle changes. The child may make comments about being bad or having the devil in them. Professional curiosity should make the professional probe deeper into the child’s responses.
Associated children may also suffer emotional abuse if they are witnessing these events and lateral considerations may be needed. These may include ‘Voice of the Child’ guidance and Every Child Matters (HM Government, 2003).
There may be physical evidence of the abuse taking place, though this may not be obvious to whomever witnesses it, so professional curiosity is important. Examples of physical evidence might include burns brought by hot oils being applied to the skin or breathing issues caused by inhalation of spices or medicine.
Section 11 of the Children’s Act 1989 places duties on organisations and individuals to ensure that any services that they provide safeguard and promote the welfare of children. This responsibility includes ensuring that all adults who work with children are competent, confident and safe.
If you are concerned about someone:
- Recognise: Gather information, note a child/adult’s words, behaviour, presentation, physical, emotional and psychological information.
- Respond: Ask the right questions.
- Record: Keep clear and accurate records.
- Refer: Pass on as much information as possible.
- ALWAYS REMEMBER – IN AN EMERGENCY DIAL 999.
National FGM Centre – The National FGM Centre was established in 2015 and is a partnership between Barnardo’s and the local Government. It aims to achieve a system change in the provision of services for children and their families experiencing harmful practices. These are persistent practices and behaviours that are grounded on discrimination based on sex, gender, age and other grounds as well as multiple and/or intersecting forms of discrimination that often involve violence and cause physical and/or psychological harm or suffering. Child abuse linked to faith or belief is considered a harmful practice with many concepts and examples where children have been harmed when adults think that their actions have brought bad fortune, such as telephoning a wrong number which is believed by some to allow malevolent spirits to enter the home.
CALFB: Resources for Exploring Concerns – The National FGM Centre provides information on child abuse linked to faith or belief, the law, risks, signs, what to do if you are worried, case studies and further resources.