Highlighting the crisis of children accused of witchcraft in Africa, IHEU representative Leo Igwe spoke at the public advocacy workshop organized by the Child Rights Brigade International, on September 30, 2009 at the Special Children Centre in Uyo Akwa Ibom State, Nigeria.
Child witchcraft is the superstitious belief that children can be witches and wizards or that infants can or do magically turn themselves into birds or insects to suck blood or mysteriously inflict harm. It is the belief that children have evil powers which they use or can use to destroy people, particularly their family or neighbours.
The effects of accusations of witchcraft on children take three forms: accusation, confession and persecution.
Children are accused of being witches and wizards. They are blamed for whatever goes wrong in their families. This could be death, disease, business failure, accidents or childbirth difficulties. Children are accused of witchcraft at home by parents and family members; in churches by ignorant and unscrupulous pastors; at shrines by primitive-minded traditional medicine men or witch doctors; or on the streets by mobs and gangs.
Children are forced to confess to being witches and wizards or to have taken part in witchcraft activities by family members or by mobs, in most cases through physical and mental torture.
Children alleged to be witches and wizards are persecuted through torture and inhuman and degrading treatment, which sometimes leads to their death. Such children are starved, chained, beaten, matcheted or even lynched. At the churches, pastors subject children alleged to be witches and wizards to torture in the name of exorcism. Witchdoctors force such children to drink potions (poison) or concoctions which can kill them or damage their health.
In Akwa Ibom State, superstition about child witchcraft is common and widespread. Most people in this state, as in other parts of Nigeria, believe that children can indeed be witches and wizards or that children can take part in witchcraft activities.
This misconception has caused most people to endorse the persecution of children accused of witchcraft, or at least to be indifferent to child rights abuses that are committed in the name of witchcraft. Most members of the public regard witchcraft accusers, witch persecutors and killers as heroes, not villains or criminals. Recently, the situation in Akwa Ibom has become so bad that it has attracted both local and international outrage. Thousands of children alleged to be witches and wizards have been tortured, driven out of their homes or killed. Some of the child victims rescued by public-spirited individuals have found refuge at a camp, the Child Rights and Rehabiltation Network, in Eket. And it is in response to this very ugly and embarrassing situation that the government of Akwa Ibom State signed into law the Child Rights Act in December 2008.
The Child Rights Act: what is it about?
According to Governor Godswill Akpabio, the Child Rights Act was passed “to protect children and posterity.” According to him it would be “futile to make the gains we have made in terms of development and progress without preparing the next generation for sustaining our legacy.”
The Child Rights Act protects the growth of perceptual, emotional, intellectual and behavioural capabilities and functioning of Akwa Ibom children under 16 years old. It empowers them to enjoy physical, social and psychological well-being through the enforcement of their physical, mental and emotional freedom from abuse.
The implementation of the Child Rights Act will create a conducive atmosphere for the development of the child. It will bring to an end child abuse by criminalizing and penalising abusers. The law guarantees comprehensive government protection for Akwa Ibom State children. It strengthens the mechanisms for the defence and protection of children.
Specifically, the law prescribes up to 15 years imprisonment without the option of a fine, or both, for offenders in child stigmatisation, accusation of witchcraft or torture. It empowers the government to seal off premises of any organization used to perpetrate child abuse.
The role of the masses in the implementation of the law
I want to point out that when it comes to stamping out a complex phenomenon like child witchcraft, the government cannot do it alone. The government needs the cooperation of the people and all the citizens of Akwa Ibom to succeed in fully implementing the Child Rights Act .
The government needs the people help in identifying and prosecuting offenders. Child rights abuses in the name of witchcraft have been going on for some time because offenders have not been prosecuted or punished. We need to report to the police all those who stigmatize or label children witches and wizards whether they are our parents or family members, our pastors or traditional medicine men. We need to inform the police of any witch testing, witch screening and witchcraft delivering churches, centres or ‘clinics’ anywhere in the state.
The prosecution of some pastors arrested in connection with child witch stigmatization and persecution in the state is currently stalled because people are not coming forward to testify against them. The child rights law will not be enforced if people are afraid of reporting or testifying against parents, family members, pastors or witch doctors or anyone alleged to have labelled children witches or wizards.
The people of Akwa Ibom should rise up to the challenge of helping the government implement this important legislation.