Persecution of 'witch' children spreading, UN seminar concludes

The term 'witch hunt' conjures up images of an almost fabled and obsolete medieval practice, but it has long been clear that in many parts of the world such superstition and ritual abuse is still commonplace.  Some of you may have seen or heard about the well received Channel 4 Dispatches documentary, Saving Africa's Witch Children (http://www.channel4.com/programmes/dispatches/episode-guide/series-8/ep…), aired in Britain last winter.  It seems the nightmare, for children across the world, is far from over.

This insidious form of persecution (wherein a child is punished for 'bringing misfortune' to the family home) is spreading across the globe, according to Jeff Crisp, of the U.N.'s refugee agency UNHCR.  The UN organised a seminar on the subject in September, which concluded that witch hunting was becoming more popular in many parts of the world.

The extent of the abuse is terrifying.  Parents and communities act in extreme fear against their own children, believing them to be irredeemably 'evil'.  There are countless cases in which children have been burnt, buried alive, poisoned, slashed, tethered to trees, starved or simply beaten and neglected.

In Nigeria, If parents can afford it, they may pay for a 'deliverace', an elaborate and often painful exorcism costing up to four times the family income for a month.  Even then, the pastor may warn that one session of deliverance is not enough (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2007/dec/09/tracymcveigh.theobserver).

Gary Foxcroft, of the NGO Stepping Stones (and the focus of the aformentioned documentary), has suggested that many of the world's homeless children will have been forced to live on the streets because they were suspected of being witches, or suffered abuse linked to superstition.  The UN and NGO experts involved in the meeting will urge governments to acknowledge the extent of the problem.

Those who attended the seminar concluded that the onset of global poverty due to the economic crisis was a key factor in the abuse of women and children as witches – as heads of families and churches sought out scapegoats for their financial misfortunes. 

Another reminder, if ever one was needed, that poverty is indeed a human rights issue.

As ever – comments welcome and questions welcome.

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