Belief in Spirit Possession and Witchcraft

Safeguarding Children from Abuse Linked to a Belief in Spirit Possession (non-statutory guidance HM Government)

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, 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.

Below is the summary of an independent evaluation, undertaken by the Centre for Social Work Research.

Key findings

1. Belief in spirit possession and witchcraft is widespread amongst many African communities but current knowledge indicates that the incidence of abuse linked to such beliefs appears to be low.

2. These beliefs occupy a broad spectrum, and the effects range from harmless to harmful. Belief in spirit possession and witchcraft is not of itself evidence of maltreatment.

3. Where there is abuse of children accused of possession or witchcraft, this abuse can be understood using one or more of the four identified forms of child abuse: physical, sexual and emotional abuse and neglect. Assessing for physical and emotional abuse is particularly important.

4. Using the existing child protection framework is effective when assessing cases where children have been accused of witchcraft and spirit possession.

5. Knowledge and understanding of culture and faith is critical to effective assessments of harm undertaken by professionals in this field. However, culture and faith should not be used as an excuse to abuse and must never take precedence over children’s rights.

6. Faith organisations have a critical role in many African communities, where poverty, inequality and lack of access to key resources can impact negatively on children. While many offer help and support, some unscrupulous faith leaders are in a position to exploit vulnerable individuals.

7. Community organisations can be an important source of advice and support to London’s African communities, and may counterbalance the power of some faith organisations.

8. Engaging communities in discussion and debate about human rights can be used as a touchstone for change. The promotion of young people as agents of change is particularly powerful.

9. Community-led approaches to promoting child safeguarding are scarce and have been shown to be critical in engaging socially excluded communities; and in changing attitudes and behaviour.

10. Faith leaders have a pivotal role to play in developing children’s rights within African communities. A shared faith has been very valuable in engaging these leaders – cutting across ethnic and national boundaries.

To find out more on this interesting initiatitive ‘Safeguarding Children’s Rights: exploring issues of witchcraft and spirit possession in London’s African communities’ please go to:

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