What is Child Abuse linked to Faith or Belief?

There is a variety of definitions associated with abuse linked to faith or belief. The National Action Plan includes the below when referring to Child Abuse Linked to Faith or Belief (CALFB):

Belief in concepts of:

  • witchcraft and spirit possession, demons or the devil acting through children or leading them astray (traditionally seen in some Christian beliefs),
  • the evil eye or djinns (traditionally known in some Islamic faith contexts) and
  • dakini (in the Hindu context);
  • ritual or muti murders where the killing of children is believed to bring supernatural benefits or the use of their body parts is believed to produce potent magical remedies;
  • use of belief in magic or witchcraft to create fear in children to make them more compliant when they are being trafficked for domestic slavery or sexual exploitation.

This is not an exhaustive list and there will be other examples where children have been harmed when adults think that their actions have brought bad fortune, such as telephoning a wrong number which is believed by some to allow malevolent spirits to enter the home.

Health implications of Abuse linked to faith or belief

Physical: This can involve beating, burning, cutting, stabbing, semi-strangulating, tying up the child, or rubbing chilli peppers or other substances on the child’s genitals or eyes.

Emotional: Emotional abuse can occur in the form of isolation. A child may not be allowed near or to share a room with family members, and threatened with abandonment. The child may also be persuaded that they are possessed. The act of telling a child that they are possessed by an evil spirit or told that they are a witch can be emotionally abusive.

Neglect: In situations of neglect, the child’s family and community may have failed to ensure appropriate medical care, supervision, education, good hygiene, nourishment, clothing or warmth.

Sexual: Children who have been singled out in this way can be particularly vulnerable to sexual abusers within the family, community or faith organisation. These people exploit the belief as a form of control or threat. Children could also be subject to practices through the deliverance process that are sexually abusive e.g. having to be bathed undress in the presence of others. Trafficked children from some countries have been known to be subjected to practices designed to control them. Some of these practices involve using their pubic hair and undergarments in rituals.

“Justifications” for abuse linked to faith or belief

  • Evil Spirits:
    Belief in evil spirits that can ‘possess’ children is often accompanied by a belief that a possessed child can ‘infect’ others with the condition. This could be through contact with shared food, or simply being in the presence of the child.
  • Scapegoating: A child could be singled out as the cause of misfortune within the home, such as financial difficulties, divorce, infidelity, illness or death.
  • Bad Behaviour: Sometimes bad or abnormal behaviour is attributed to spiritual forces. Examples include a child being disobedient, rebellious, overly independent, wetting the bed, having nightmares or falling ill.
  • Physical Difference/Disability: A child could be singled out for having a physical difference or disability. Documented cases included children with learning disabilities, mental health issues, epilepsy, autism, stammers and deafness.
  • Gifts and uncommon characteristics: If a child has a particular skill or talent, this can sometimes be rationalised as the result of possession or witchcraft. This can also be the case if the child is from a multiple or difficult pregnancy.
  • Complex family structure: Research suggests that a child living with extended family, non biological parents, or foster parents is more at risk. In these situations they are more likely to have been subject to trafficking and made to work in servitude.

The Law around child abuse linked to faith or belief

There are a number of laws in the UK that allow the prosecution of those responsible for abuse linked to faith or belief. One of the biggest challenges is raising awareness and encouraging victims and witnesses to come forward.

The Children in Need Census 2016/7 identified 1,460 cases where the assessment of the child’s needs showed child abuse linked to faith or belief as a possible factor.

Signs that a child could be at risk of abuse linked to faith or belief

Child abuse linked to faith or belief is not confined to one faith, nationality, ethnic group or community. Cases have been recorded worldwide across various religions including Christians, Muslims and Hindus. Not all with the belief go on to harm children. The number of known cases suggests that only a small minority of people who believe in witchcraft or spirit possession go on to abuse children.

Abuse may happen anywhere, but it most commonly occurs within the child’s home.

  • Children with disability including autism, epilepsy, down’s syndrome, dyslexia etc
  • Albinos
  • Children living away from home in private fostering situations or in domestic servitude situations
  • Children living with a step-parent, with one of the natural parents absent or dead
  • Children whose parents have been branded as witches
  • Children who are seen as “naughty” or have challenging behaviour
  • Precocious children and left handed children
  • Children who are living within complex family structures e.g. a polygamous setting or reconstituted family

Signs that a child is undergoing abuse linked to faith or belief

Most of the indicators may appear similar to other types of maltreatment.

  • A child’s body showing signs or marks, such as bruises or burns, from physical abuse;
  • A child becoming noticeably confused, withdrawn, disorientated or isolated and appearing alone amongst other children;
  • A child’s personal care deteriorating, for example through a loss of weight, being hungry, turning up to school without food or food money or being unkempt with dirty clothes and even faeces smeared on to them;
  • It may also be directly evident that the child’s parent does not show concern for or a close bond with them;
  • A child’s attendance at school becoming irregular, or being taken out of school altogether without another school place having been organised;
  • A child reporting that they are or have been accused of being evil, and / or that they are having the devil beaten out of them.
  • A child made to wear some form of paraphernalia that could be of a religious nature.


Practice Guidance for Child Abuse Linked to Faiths or Beliefs

Child Abuse Linked to Faith or Belief Leaflet (National FGM Centre)

The National FGM Centre has released two YouTube videos discussing child abuse linked to faith or belief. The first is an animation telling the story of young boy in the UK who was accused of witchcraft by his aunt and uncle; the second offers advice to professionals about how to work with children who have been accused of witchcraft. The National FGM Centre has more information on abuse linked to faith or belief.

Useful Links

National FGM Centre – A partnership between Barnardo’s and the Local Government Association (LGA) to achieve a systems change in the provision of services for children and families affected by Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and other Harmful Practices.

AFRUCA: Africans Unite Against Child Abuse – A UK charity advocating the rights and welfare of African children.

Barnardo’s National FGM Centre – This provides a comprehensive overview of CALFB. It covers what CALFB is, health implications, justifications for it, the law and signs that a child could be at risk

Child trafficking Advice Centre (CTAC) – A team that provides advice for professionals responsible for safeguarding children from trafficking.

VCF: The Victoria Climbié Foundation – An organisation campaigning to improve child protection policies and practices.

The Witchcraft and Human Rights Information Network – WHRIN’s work enables greater understanding and awareness of these complex issues so that solutions can be developed to prevent further violations of human rights from taking place