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"Witchcraft" an excuse for child abuse

[Angola] Kids image-HIV. [Date picture taken: 11/2006] M.Sayagues/PlusNews
Children accused of witchcraft are isolated
Makiesse means "happiness" in Kikongo, a language spoken in northern Angola. But the early childhood of 10-year-old Makiesse Jonas was far from joyous.

When he was aged just six, his stepmother accused him of conjuring up the sickness that killed his father. He was beaten everyday, and forced to undergo a purification ritual which included fasting, being whipped and secluded.

"I said that I wasn't a wizard, that maybe the wizard used my face at night. But no one believed me," Jonas told IRIN.

Jonas was almost burnt alive one day by family members. He was saved by an uncle, who took him from his home in the northern city of Uige, to Luanda, Angola's capital, 345km away. He left him at a shelter for street children run by the Roman Catholic Church.

Jonas is a survivor of a disturbing trend that has emerged in Angola in recent years: Children being accused of witchcraft, resulting in their abuse, abandonment, and, in some cases, death. It appears more frequently among the Bakongo people, concentrated in the Uige, Zaire and Cabinda provinces in northern Angola.

Isolated instances of children accused of sorcery have been recorded in the past. But now there is a "significant and growing phenomenon of abused and abandoned children" being singled out, according to a recent study by the National Children's Institute (INAC), the government's child protection department, and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

The problem first came to the attention of rights groups in 2000, when Save the Children, a nongovernmental organisation, recorded an unusually high number of children living on the streets of M'banza Congo, a city in Zaire. The concern was the children had been kicked out of their homes following allegations of witchcraft.

"It was frightening - the number of children in this situation, more than 400 just in M'banza Congo," recalled Suzana Filomena of Save the Children—Norway (SCF).

Filomena visited nine of 12 "treatment centres" in the city run by pastors of Pentecostal churches, healers, and followers of Kimbanguism, an African church with Congolese roots.

She found the children there being subjected to various purification procedures. The least harmful involved prayers and the sprinkling of holy water; the worst involved applying stinging perfume and chilli powder to the eyes, palm oil in the ears, the cutting of skin, burning with candles, herbal suppositories, laxatives, two-week-long fasts, forced labour on the pastor's farm, and seclusion which could last up to six months, according to the SCF and UNICEF.

The pastors and healers had an interest in identifying and curing child "sorcerers", perpetuating the belief as they filled their pockets with the cash and other offerings that the families paid to exorcise their children, said the study.

The INAC study blamed the impact of the 27-year civil war which ended in 2002. The phenomenon was a "manifestation of the crisis" - dislocation, poverty, weakened state institutions, rapid urbanisation and the changing relationship between children and adults as a result of the war, according to the study.

The accused children are often hyperactive, difficult, rebellious, and stubborn. They may be epileptic or have physical defects, are sleepwalkers, have nightmares, or wet their bed, according to INAC.

The SCF strategy, explained Filomena, "is to help people understand that the behavior of children is due to war, to HIV, to the death of their parents, or to the normal phases of development, and that children also have rights".

According to experts, the children accused of witchcraft are almost always orphans, the majority of them boys. Girls, it seems, are not targeted because of their usefulness in performing domestic chores.

"Children with two living parents are rarely accused of witchcraft," said Father Horácio Caballero, director of the shelter that cares for Jonas and dozens of children in the same situation.

The AIDS epidemic has also played a role in the abuse of children left vulnerable by the disease. "The influence of AIDS is very strong", said Caballero. "When AIDS begins to kill, someone in the family gets blamed for it".

While Angola's rate of HIV infection is less than four percent, the lowest in southern Africa, ignorance is high, because the epidemic is relatively recent.

"People don't understand this circle of infection and sickness that isn't cured, year after year of suffering. It can't be the doing of God, it must be a sorcerer," said Filomena.

In Zaire province, the SCF teamed up with INAC to deal with the problem. In 2001, the governor mandated the closing of 13 "treatment centres" and expelled eight Congolese pastors who lacked visas. "We were not going to allow the abuse of our children," Monteiro Garcia, the provincial vice-governor, told IRIN.

That decision signaled zero tolerance for child abuse, but it seemed to drive the practice underground. A complementary strategy, which involved sensitising traditional and religious leaders and the establishment of 38 child protection committees in Zaire, seemed to have more success.

But João Neves, SCF's chief in Luanda, pointed out that whereas Zaire has acted, other provinces are yet to follow that lead.

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