The World

Children Targeted as Witches in the Congo

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.

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Girls' bedroom at Ek'Abana shelterBUKAVU, 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.

More Girls Targeted

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.

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