By Danielle Shapiro
Sunday, November 22, 2009
Many homeless children in the Democratic Republic of Congo are living on the streets after being accused of witchcraft. Some say that more girls than boys are targeted in Bukavu. A shelter in the city provides a home for children labeled as witches.
BUKAVU, Democratic Republic of the Congo (WOMENSENEWS)--Chance Chubaka's family lives in Chimbunda, a suburb of this bustling, impoverished town on the south shores of Lake Kivu. But by the time Chance was 9 years old, she no longer shared their home.
"I found that the easiest place to live was on the street," said the poised 13-year-old.
Following the death of her father and grandfather, neighbors accused her of being a witch and causing the deaths.
Her uncle agreed. He tied her hands together with plastic bags and burned them, a common technique in the Democratic Republic of Congo to illicit confessions from children tagged as witches. The scars on Chance's hands remain.
Her uncle also burned her legs, she says, and finally kicked her out of the house.
"Every time I tried to go home, I was beaten," Chance said.
She tried five times.
Chance's story is achingly familiar.
Most of the thousands of children living on the streets in the nation's capital city of Kinshasa have been accused of witchcraft, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. And earlier this year, the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child found that in the Congo violence against children accused of witchcraft is on the rise. Neither finding singled out girls.
Although attention to the problem is often focused on the country's west--Kinshasa and the area around Mbuji-Mayi in particular--the east, and certainly Bukavu, is far from immune.
Although cases of boys who are accused of being witches are common and boys are usually considered at equal risk as girls, authorities and others who work with accused children in Bukavu find that in their area more girls are targeted.
Maj. Honorine Munyole, Bukavu's police commander in charge of children's protection, women and sexual violence against women, says because girls are traditionally responsible for housework more than boys, and are therefore at home more, they have greater interactions with family members. This makes them targets of witchcraft accusations more frequently, she says.
Munyole's office began collecting statistics on the number of children accused of witchcraft in Bukavu last year. At that time, she says, police started seeing a growing number of girls on the street, many working as prostitutes, who said they'd been kicked out of their homes because of being called witches. Up until September of this year, 174 cases in town had been reported to the police, says Lt. Paul Murdibuha, Munyole's second assistant.
"It's a community problem," said Munyole. "They usually scapegoat the child. For example, the parent says, 'I was a doctor or a pastor in a former life, but now I am jobless because of the child's witchcraft.'"
Accusations of witchcraft used to be directed primarily at elderly women, according to a 2009 report released by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. But since the early 1990s children, especially those in urban centers, have increasingly become the focus of such allegations.
It is an additional threat to the more than 50 percent of the Congolese population under the age of 18 whose lives are already tenuous. One in five Congolese die before their fifth birthday and more than half of school-age children do not go to school, according to Save the Children.
Children who are accused of witchcraft often experience horrific abuse at home and in revivalist churches that perform "exorcisms." This can include burning, starvation and severe beatings.
The witchcraft charges usually follow a death, illness or other unexplained misfortune that befall families. They are intimately tied to the deep poverty that afflicts most Congolese, about 70 percent of whom are impoverished, according to the International Monetary Fund. Having fewer mouths to feed can be an incentive to accuse a child of sorcery and expel him or her from the home. The U.N. child's rights committee has urged the Congolese government to criminalize accusations of witchcraft against children.
Families divided by deaths and displacements, often associated with Congo's ongoing and brutal conflict in which more than 5 million people have died since 1996, may render children who end up in the care of stepparents or extended family members more vulnerable. This is especially true when the guardians are already coping with poverty. In a 2006 report, Human Rights Watch found that it was rare for a child living with both biological parents to be accused of witchcraft.
The report also found that behavior considered unusual, such as bed wetting, aggressive behavior, sleep walking, nightmares or simply sharing food with neighboring children, can trigger sorcery accusations. Children who suffer from chronic or severe mental and physical illnesses are also sometimes singled out.
Although the problem remains serious, some children do get help. In the four years since Chance was on the street, she has been living in Ek'Abana, a home run by the city's Catholic diocese that shelters children accused of being witches. Perched on the bend of a deeply rutted and hilly mud road overlooking Lake Kivu, Ek'Abana, which means house of children in Mashi, a local language, is a tranquil refuge.
Inside the tidy home, each child has a shelf of neatly folded clothes and small beds with clean sheets are lined up in rows. The grassy courtyard is dotted with blooming trees. The 31 mostly female children now living there, aged 7 to 15, milled about calmly after school one weekend in October. Some girls sat together knitting washcloths. As mid-day came and went, they prayed together in the home's outdoor chapel and then headed to the dining hall for lunch.
"My life is better here," said Sara Yakokya, 11, a newer resident who has lived at the home since September. "I think they try to take care of me. I am not too much stigmatized."
Only two of the children at Ek'Abana are boys.
Ek'Abana opened its doors in 2002 with nine children, said Dieudonne Muhanano, the home's receptionist and staff member charged with speaking to the media. All the children living at the home receive religious teaching and some counseling. They all attend school and, even after leaving the home, Ek'Abana continues to cover their school fees.
Sister Natalina Isella, an Italian nun who established the home, said there is no formal budget. "If we receive $100, we spend it," she said, noting that they always ultimately get by.
Muhanano said he felt the incidents of sorcery accusations have been decreasing in the South Kivu province since 2008, at which time Ek'Abana started a program with the police and area priests to visit local parishes throughout the region and educate community members about the problem. The program targets Catholic parishes but Muhanano said members of other denominations are welcome to attend the awareness-raising sessions.
Ek'Abana also mediates with the families of children living at the home in an effort to reunify them. Chance said she expects to return home soon as a result of these mediations. She's been going home on weekends to test the waters.
"Those who called me a sorcerer, no longer do," Chance said. "I go back home every weekend and my family welcomes me."
Chance said with the help from staff at Ek'Abana she's even been able to forgive her family for their cruelty. And she's learned to put the problem of witchcraft accusations in perspective.
"I would tell people that it's a false concept," she said. "It is only a way to mistreat people and deprive them of their rights."
Ek'Abana, however, is still receiving children like Sara, who had only been at the home for about one month when she spoke with Women's eNews. Sara, who will soon turn 12, is paralyzed in one leg. She said a failed operation to heal her, in conjunction with her father's death several years prior, led neighbors and then her mother to accuse her of witchcraft. Her mother then expelled her.
"I don't feel like I miss her because she denied me," Sara said of her mother, a soldier in the army.
Although at Ek'Abana Sara is now surrounded by those who accept her, the emotional wounds are fresh. In the midst of telling her story she paused, buried her head in her hands and cried. She held firmly onto a plastic blue rosary, fingering it continually.
"I know I did nothing wrong," she said after a while.
Though staff from Ek'Abana have already reached out to her mother for mediation, Sara said so far her mother has refused to talk.
Danielle Shapiro is a freelance journalist based in New York City.
"What Future? Street Children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo" report, Human Rights Watch:
United Nations brief on witchcraft accusations:
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