Belief in Spirit Possession and Witchcraft

Belief in Spirit Possession and Witchcraft
What is Witchcraft?

Historically, it was widely believed that witchcraft involved the use of supernatural or magical powers to inflict harm upon members of a community or their property, and that all witches were in league with the devil. Since the mid 20th century, witchcraft has increasingly been understood to include both malevolent and benevolent witchcraft, the latter often involving healing.

What is Spirit Possession?

Spirit possession is understood to involve spirits, gods, demons and djinni’s, taking control of a human body, resulting in noticeable changes in health and behaviour. Trust for London created the Safeguarding Children’s Rights initiative to invest in community based work tackling child abuse linked to beliefs in witchcraft and spirit possession.

“Justifications” for abuse:

Information taken from the National FGM Centre demonstrates that abuse linked to faith and belief is “justified” in many different ways:

  • 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.

(Source: MET Police, Online)

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.

(Source: National FGM Centre Online)

Abuse may happen anywhere, but it most commonly occurs within the child’s home. Children who may be at increased risk of being accused of spirit possession or witchcraft include:

  • 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

(Source: MET Police, Online)

The Law for 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.
(Source: MET Police, Online))

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. (Department for Education, 2017)

The National FGM Centre is working with Harrow CS to tackle FGM, Child Abuse Linked to Faith and Belief and Breast Flattening. For advice and support contact Farhia Mumin at farhia.mumin@harrow.gov.uk or call 07857699883 or 0208 424 1639 ext 2639.

HSCB Training on Spirit Possession and Child Abuse is available here.

What to do if you are worried about a child. To discuss concerns or make a referral: