Human Rights: Children Branded as Witches in Nigeria

This week an article published by the BBC explored the rising phenomenon of child Witches in Africa. Specifically, this article looked at the lives of 3 siblings  who were all labelled as witches within their community and are now living in an emergency shelter in the city of Calabar.  The three children, Hope aged 15, Godbless aged five  and three year old Comfort  were brutally branded by hot machetes by members of their local  church community. All these children now have huge white scares on their backs to symbolise their identity as witches and now lay in the margins of society unprotected by nor family or society.

The oldest of the siblings Hope describes the ordeal and the church’s role within the process, ‘He (a so-called prophet) started beating us and told us to untie our grandmother from the witchcraft world… They then asked us if we were witches, we said, ‘No’.” Hope then describes what happened next, as consequence of their denial, ‘he started beating us in turn with the hot machete, from morning until afternoon…..We eventually said, ‘Yes’.  The problem with witchcraft the article identified is its direct correlation and control with the church.   Oliver Orok, the Minister Of Sustainable Development explores the problem and claims that if the government was made aware of these issues it  ‘would (be a ) move against such churches and their prophets’. The churches within Nigeria deny all forms of child mutilation or torture. This stance is potently demonstrated as the church which tortured  these children into confession adamantly   denies these claims with pastor  Israel Ubi  arguing  that, ‘There is no witchcraft here’.

The rise of this new phenomenon is a potent index to the discomfort and unrest which is being experienced within the Nigerian region. The callous targeting of the most vulnerable of the community, of three, five and 15-year old’s clearly signals a cultural unrest and need for change. The rise of child witches is a relatively new phenomenon  within the region , which gained momentum in the 1990s. Prior to this it was the elderly women of the communities which became the vessels of witchcraft accusations.  Alarming  however by 2008 there was 15,000 children in the southern states of Akwa Ibom and Cross Rivers in Nigeria that  had been labelled as witches. The Nigerian Criminal Code clearly prohibits the accusation, threatening or labelling of an individual been a witch. Similarly, the Child Rights Act of 2003 criminalises the subjecting of any child to physical or emotional torture.  Yet despite these regulations child witches continue to be a major component of society.

These children are now living with their grandmother, Christina in Akampka, Nigeria. The children’s parents had each died suddenly in mysterious circumstances and Christina has been diagnosed as HIV positive. The community to cope with these  tragic circumstances therefore placed the blame of each death onto the children, driving a wedge between them and society. Contextually adding to the magnitude of this issue a 2010 UNICEF report identifies the most common groups to be classified as witches are children with physical or mental disabilities. Similarly targeted however are also children who appear to be withdrawn, lazy or chaotic within a society. The inhumane treatment of these children includes documented reports which describe babies and children who have had nails driven into their skulls, children who have been force fed cement, set on fire or buried alive.

The increasing violence and targeting of these children within the Nigerian region is a clear index for national intervention. The need for coherent, feasible and culturally sensitive policies to be implemented within the region should be an urgent action needed to be facilitated by the government. Despite the current rules and regulations in place to protect these children more needs to be done in order to prevent the increased targeting of  children. The turbulent futures of Comfort, Hope and Godbless is now dependent upon a change of community attitudes as its ability to develop new forms of cultural attitudes, identities and management  is  key to the communities success.

Ellie Willis