Faith and belief-based child abuse, including practices around ‘spirit possession’ and ‘witchcraft’, is a hidden crime, which makes it difficult to quantify in terms of magnitude. However, from our own experience and in consultation with London’s communities, we know this kind of abuse is under-reported.

Forms of abuse

Abuse can be separated into five different areas;

  • Abuse as a result of a child being accused of being a ‘witch’
  • Abuse as a result of a child being accused of being possessed by ‘evil spirits’
  • Ritualistic abuse which is prolonged sexual, physical and psychological abuse
  • Satanic abuse which is carried out in the name of ‘Satan’ and may have links to cults
  • Any other harmful practice linked to a belief or faith

The forms of abuse that follow fall into the four main categories below.

Physical abuse

This can involve ritualistic 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 abuse

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.

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 abuse

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.

Where does it happen?

Child abuse linked to faith or belief is not confined to one faith, nationality or ethnic community. Examples have been recorded worldwide across various religions including Christians, Muslims and Hindus. 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.

Common factors and causes

A range of factors can contribute to the abuse of a child for reasons of faith or belief. Some of the most common ones are below.

Belief in 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 differences

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.

Project Violet and how to report belief or faith-based abuse

There are a numbers 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.

Project Violet is our response to these challenges. Working with professionals, communities and faith leaders we’re developing prevention strategies and initiatives that can help educate and raise awareness of faith and belief-based abuse.

Our team is available to provide advice, support and guidance for referrals and investigations.

If you suspect child abuse is taking place, please get in touch. Visit our How to report possible child abuse page to find out more.

Useful links

AFRUCA: Africans Unite Against Child Abuse 

A UK charity advocating the rights and welfare of African children.

CCPAS: The Churches’ Child Protection Advisory Service 

An independent Christian charity focused on safeguarding children and adults at risk of harm.

VCF: The Victoria Climbié Foundation

An organisation campaigning to improve child protection policies and practices.

Children and Families Across Borders (CFAB)

A UK member of the International Social Service (ISS), supporting children separated from their family in another country.

Inform: The information network on religious movements

A London charity supplying accurate, balanced information about alternative religious, spiritual and esoteric movements.

National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC)

A national children's charity, preventing abuse and helping those affected to recover.

Child trafficking Advice Centre (CTAC)

A team that provides advice for professionals responsible for safeguarding children from trafficking.

ECPAT UK

A UK organisation campaigning against child trafficking and exploitation.