Tackling faith based abuse in African communities

Charles Rukwengye of APORENet explains the findings of a five-year programme understanding and tackling ritual abuse in African communities

Photo: Rex/Antti Aimo-Koivisto

You may recall the case of “Adam”, the young boy whose torso was found floating along the Thames in 2002, in what later turned out to be a ritual killing.

It shocked the African community and probably shocked you too. It also shocked me, but sadly it did not surprise me.

This is because in the months leading up to the case of “Adam”, clients of APORENet – the community organisation I work for – had been coming to us and suggesting that human rights violations against children and young people were taking place within African communities in the UK.

Understanding children’s rights in African communities
Participants identified seven shared concepts at the heart of a definition of children’s rights in traditional African communities:
1. Bringing up children is the responsibility both of their parents and their community as a whole
2. Children should be brought up to respect their parents, elders and social traditions
3. Children should not be abused by their parents, elders or peers physically, mentally or sexually
4. Children must be protected from bad elements of society
5. Children have pre-determined roles in society and become adults through rites of passage
6. Children are a gift from the gods and their fate lies in the hands of the gods
7. Community needs override the needs of any individual – whether adult or child.

For guidance on how to safeguard children from abuse linked to a belief in spirit possession, and child abuse linked to faith, check out Community Care Inform Children.

The abuse included female genital mutilation, corporal punishment, child labour, early marriages, dowry/bride price and denial of rights to girl children. Stories were also circulating about abuse in places of worship where young people were being accused of possession by evil spirits and forced to undergo painful exorcism rituals.

It’s hard to estimate prevalence because abuse is often hidden and unreported. Although there is no evidence of an increase in the number of cases, we are now more aware of previously unidentified abuse and the need to protect all children from harm, irrespective of the cause.

Information from the National Working Group indicates that the number of cases of child abuse linked to a belief in spirits, possession and witchcraft is believed to be small, but where it occurs it causes much distress and suffering to the child. It is possible that a proportion of this type of abuse remains unreported.

You may have come across these issues in your practice. Perhaps you have been uncertain how to respond. This article will share the conclusions and recommendations that arose from a five-year education programme that engaged African Londoners in open debate about how traditional practices affect children and young people in their communities.

Participants sought to identify human rights abuses perpetuated in the name of traditional values and to explore community-driven solutions to these problems. The views of the nearly 900 participants were gathered and brought together in a new report.

As expected, the views reflected the heterogeneous character of the African continent as participants did not have a common stand on all issues that were debated and often held different opinions about what constituted abuse.

There was also tension between the parents’ desires to fulfil their cultural obligations and their concern for children’s wellbeing.

For example, the case on male circumcision as a ritual into manhood generated a lot of debate from, on one hand, participants who felt that their sons should undergo professional and medically supervised circumcision, and on the other those who disagreed, arguing that circumcision should strictly be conducted in a cultural setting that tests the boy’s bravery/manhood.

The debate centred on whether cultural values could be maintained without subjecting children to unnecessary harm or even life threatening rituals. Can a compromise be negotiated?

In spite of the diversity of views and tensions expressed, what emerged from the sessions was that most of the parents, who have facilitated their children to undergo these rituals, did so because they believed it was in the best interests of the child.

The report includes participants’ recommendations for decision-makers, professionals and funders on how they can support the development of community solutions to tradition-based abuse in African communities.  These include:

Rights-based community education exposes people to new information, ideas and ways of doing things, creating opportunities for openness and discussion. It is this combination that will enable communities to come up with solutions that respect both their cultural heritage and children’s rights. Specific recommendations included training and educational resources on child rights, the law and cultural expectation in the UK, for both adults and children.

Effective reporting mechanisms – some community members are ready to speak out when they see or suspect abuse. They need to know what to do and where to get help – and to be confident that services will be confidential and culturally sensitive. Specific recommendations included better publicity in communities about how to contact ‘the authorities’ and what they will do; information about third party reporting mechanism; and information for children and young people in schools referring specifically to tradition-based abuse.

Training and support for professionals – including developing ‘knowledge centres’ or trained community advisers to deliver training and follow-up advice, to enable teachers, doctors, nurses and social workers to test out concerns and build their confidence in dealing effectively with tradition-based abuse.

Targeted guidance – including using routine communications from schools and medical practices to reinforce messages about children’s rights

Engaging leaders and opinion formers – faith and community leaders are highly regarded and are better positioned to act as agents of change within their communities.  Rather than just policing them, professionals involved in safeguarding need to engage them, especially in the area of raising awareness about the dangers of harmful practices.

Faith and culture should be on the agenda of every Local Safeguarding Board including outreach to local places of worship to ensure that systems are in place to protect children from the stigma and isolation potentially experienced by children who may be labelled as different (or indeed a witch).

APORENet is a small community organisation based in Hounslow that mainly deals with issues affecting members of the African Communities, especially in the area of human rights. The community education project was funded by the Big Lottery Fund and the report was funded by independent charity Trust for London.

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