The problem of ‘child witches’ in Britain, the subject of a ‘summit’ at Westminster today, will hear calls for the term ‘witch’ to be outlawed in religious contexts.
The meeting to be hosted by MP Chuka Umunna will hear from activists who claim that only rogue clergy use the term, which in the African context is ‘tantamount to violence’.
The phenomenon of ‘child witches’ which has regularly hit the UK headlines over the past decade since the Victoria Climbié case horrified the nation in 2001, is due to globalization, and is not widely practised in Africa, an anthropologist has said on the eve of the conference at the House of Commons.
Social anthropologist Anthony Gittins, Professor of Theology and Culture at Chicago Theological Union, says that the exporting of such practices to Britain without the traditional safeguards is behind the unchecked exploitation by rogue pastors of the most vulnerable in the communities affected.
Licensed witch finders in Africa help contain what’s been dubbed ‘the standardized nightmare of the group’ within manageable boundaries.
But once exported to Britain, fear of witchcraft plays into the hands of the only available ‘safe people’: the clergy.
‘The people’s mentality is you can’t accuse anyone of witchcraft because you will be contaminated yourself,’ says Gittins.
‘The only safe people are the witch finders who are licensed, but in Britain the people who take the place of the witch finders are the clergy, because they are “close to God” and cannot therefore be contaminated.’
This view may help legislators pondering the ramifications of outlawing words that can, in specific, bounded circumstances, actually kill.
Professor Gittins, who spent ten years working in Sierra Leone villages where he befriended a witch finder, criticized the recent TV documentary by Dispatches for implying that child witches were ‘generalized’ in Congo.
‘That’s untrue. Witchcraft is a scapegoating mechanism for explaining insoluble problems, and tends to become an obsession targeting a particular group. It is unusual for it to be children.’
The clue to what was going on in Britain – which he said was ‘dire’ - lay in who was being accused, and who was doing the accusing.
‘The victims are always the most vulnerable people in the structures of the society, usually old or infertile women or mothers-in-law.’
He called for mainstream churches, and especially the missionary societies with a history of working in Africa to reach out to migrant communities to end the isolation that allows fear to flourish.
He believed that the child witch phenomenon was a manifestation of migration.
‘The children are growing up in a new environment and rather than being socio-centric and well-behaved, the children are getting ideas and becoming more factious and therefore a threat to the people and ripe for exploitation.’
The ‘summit’ in the House of Commons this evening (Wednesday) is sponsored by Islington-based AFRUCA - Africans Unite Against Child Abuse - who are the lead agency in Britain on witchcraft, generating research and education on the issue.
Founder Director Debbie Ariyo said on TV in October that the cases that had emerged in the courts were ‘the tip of the iceberg’, and is calling for legislation to control clergy and outlaw bogus branding and ‘deliverance’ ministries.
In a presentation to Tim Laughton, Minister for Children on 22 February this year, AFRUCA said they knew of a dozen cases of violent exorcisms in the past twelve months.
AFRUCA policy and network Development Officer Justin Bahunga told Lapido: ‘This is cross-cultural, but we can’t take on everyone.
‘In our African context, when someone is called a witch it means they are believed to be an evil person, and you are opening the door to all sorts of abuse.
‘What we are saying is it is an incitement to violence against the child. A witch is someone who can harm either voluntarily or involuntarily. The word itself is tantamount to inciting someone to harm.’
Bahunga added that this was a lucrative business for rogue pastors.
‘Pastors’ charge between £100 and £500 for an ‘exorcism’ and sometimes even more, he says.
The ‘summit’ aims to share ideas on how to make places of worship safe for children. Participants include local authority representatives, police, social workers and church leaders.
‘We think we need another layer of protection apart from awareness raising and training. We think there should be something in the law to make it an offence to brand someone as a witch, just as it is illegal to use racist or sexist language.’
A Department of Education report due out last month was delayed while the horrifying case of the murder of Kristy Bamu in a Newham tower block was tried.
The last major report on faith-based abuse for the Home Office in 2006 by Eleanor Stobart found 74 cases of abuse in Britain linked to ‘possession’ and exorcism in the six years of the survey period to 2006, 38 of which were definitely witchcraft related. The vast majority self-identified as ‘Christian’.
Christianity or the Occult? Conference papers
Child abuse linked to Accusation of ‘Possession’ and ‘Witchcraft’: Research Report RR750 for the Department for Education and Skills 2006 by Eleanor Stobart