16 June is Day of the African Child. The theme in 2013 was on eliminating harmful social and cultural practices affecting children: our collective responsibility.
Accusations of sorcery put children at tremendous risk of discrimination or retribution. Although it is against Congolese law to accuse a child of sorcery, children like Josiane face such claims. UNICEF, government and NGO partners are working to protect children accused of witchcraft and to change cultural behaviour that puts these children at risk.
GOMA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 26 June 2013 – Children who are accused of sorcery often live a lonely life. Such is the case for 16-year old Josiane*. “I told myself I should avoid contact with other people’s children as to avoid being accused of doing evil to them,” she explains, tears shining in her eyes.
For a year, Josiane has been living the nightmare of being a called a witch.
Children accused of witchcraft
Belief in witchcraft and other occult forces tends to flourish in times of hardship, not only in Africa, but also in many other parts of the world. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, children accused of witchcraft number in the thousands.
Anthropologists have identified a combination of crises as the underlying cause for witchcraft accusations against children. Economic hardship, conflict, urbanization, displacement and family breakdown spread insecurity and undermine communities. In parallel, revivalist churches tend to proliferate, offering spiritual comfort in times of uncertainty.
Accused children are frequently orphans taken in by relatives who are in poor circumstances and barely have the means to sustain themselves.
Josiane is accused
When her father died in 2012, Josiane left Kisangani in Province Orientale to stay with her uncle in North Kivu’s capital, Goma. One morning, one of Josiane’s cousins suffered from an epileptic seizure. When the child was taken to the hospital, the doctor found no immediate cause for the seizure. “After this incident, my uncle’s wife said that I must be responsible for the boy’s illness, since she’d never seen anything like that before,” Josiane remembers.
After the accusations started, her uncle refused to pay her school fees, so Josiane had to stop attending school. Eventually, she was thrown out of the house. She ended up on the streets of Goma.
No space for discrimination
It was there that UNICEF’s partner, the NGO Children’s Voice, found her. She is now staying in a centre for vulnerable children, where she receives psychosocial counseling, health care and education.
“The children that stay with us come from different backgrounds and circumstances. They all stay together under one roof, without space for discrimination,” says head of Children’s Voice Christine Musaidizi.
Working hand in hand to protect children
To change cultural behaviour that puts children at risk, organizations such as Children’s Voice work hand in hand with UNICEF and the government to inform and sensitize communities about children’s rights. “In Goma, in the past, a child accused of sorcery would have been stoned to death or burnt alive,” explains Ms. Musaidizi. “And, if you dared to defend someone accused of sorcery, you’d be accused of sorcery yourself – and treated the same way.” She adds that, for the past two years, no child accused of sorcery has been physically harmed in her area of intervention.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Child Protection Law was enacted in January 2009. The country is also a signatory to the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, which states that children are protected from any act of violence. “[The Democratic Republic of the Congo’s] law is explicit; accusing a child of sorcery is punishable by one to three years of penal servitude,” says head of the national special police for children and women’s protection in North Kivu David Bodeli Dombi.
Unfortunately, according to Mr. Bodeli Dombi, the law is not widely known. “The Government and UNICEF have made significant efforts to vulgarize the law, but people continue to ignore its content,” he says.
During her first days in the Children’s Voice centre, Josiane was very reserved. Today, her smile is back. She has caught up on missed lessons at school and is ready to take her primary education final exams.
“I will succeed and find my way,” says Josiane, with confidence.
* Name has been changed.
Story by Cornelia Walther