Ritual Abuse Travels Well

Belief systems that justify child abuse are not only an African
phenomenon, reminds Elizabeth McAteer  

The child abuse case involving an eight-year-old African girl
who was thought to be a witch has led to calls for more
understanding by child protection agencies of how and why this type
of abuse occurred.

But before we all go charging down the road of looking for an
exotic explanation of the abuse, and attempt to make it a
culturally specific phenomenon, we should reflect on what we
already know.

Ritual abuse is one of the many ways adults use to harm children,
and consists of, among other things, the imprisonment of children
in sacks, cupboards, boxes or any other enclosed space, the
smearing with and forced drinking of animal blood and the killing
of animals, especially pets, in front of the child. This abuse is
usually accompanied by the physical, emotional and verbal abuse of
the child, with the child being told that they are bad and blamed
for events that have gone wrong in the adult carer’s life.

It is not only in the African communities that the possession of a
child by an evil spirit is believed. One only has to look at
Western literature and art to know that such beliefs flourish in
the West.

The flaunting, by the media, of newspaper advertisements for
spiritual helpers hints at a sneering racism. What about Mystic Meg
and the advertisements for life coaches and personal gurus in the
mainstream press? Doesn’t this suggest that people of all ethnic
backgrounds are looking for help in a similar manner with stresses
and difficulties?

Those agencies involved with the protection of children, need to
reflect on the mistakes made. Any medical examination of suspected
child abuse by a professional who is unfamiliar with ethnic
backgrounds different to their own, will require expert
Assumptions based on racial stereotyping, whether positive or
negative, about child rearing and how people and communities live
their lives have all led to tragic outcomes for children in the

Workers and managers must have an understanding of life’s
complexities, competence to assess risk, and knowledge of what is
likely to produce the best and worst outcomes for children and
their families.

Elizabeth McAteer is an independent social worker and

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