The number of children in England abused due to belief in witchcraft has risen by more than 30% in the last three years, according to new data.
Abuse of children for reasons of faith or belief rose from 1,460 cases in 2016/17 to 1,950 cases in 2018/19 – an increase of 34%.
The figures were published by the Local Government Association and are based on safeguarding assessment data from local authorities passed to the Department of Education.
Abuse can be driven by a belief the child is possessed by demons or the devil or is the reason for some misfortune to befall a family, or to terrorise the child into compliance when being trafficked.
The new figures also revealed the number of girls identified by social workers as either having had or being at risk of female genital mutilation (FGM) reached a high of 1,000 cases this year.
It is an increase of 6% on the 940 cases in 2017/18.
A belief in witchcraft and the perpetuation of FGM can sometimes be linked, although experts emphasise this is by no means true in the majority of mutilation cases.
The National FGM Centre has been conducting research and providing education and training into faith-based abuse since its inception in 2015.
“We know [faith-based] abuse is often linked to when families experience some kind of misfortune – whether it is a child with a disability or parental mental health, or when some of these families experience exclusion because of poverty.
They try to make sense of what they are experiencing through a lens where they have this belief system where there is this spiritual realm and what happens there has an impact on what happens here.
They use children as a scapegoat for that misfortune that they are experiencing.”
Leethen Bartholomew, head of The National FGM Centre
Mr Bartholemew added that while in the majority of cases there was no link between witchcraft and FGM, the centre had come across reports from other countries where female genitals are used in rituals after they are removed.
He added that some victims of FGM reported being threatened with witchcraft to prevent them reporting their ordeal. He said in various serious-case reviews, professionals had been criticised for working in a “religious blind” way and failing to investigate the beliefs of parents and carers and the wider family.
First UK Conviction
In March of this year, a Ugandan woman became the first person to be convicted of FGM for the mutilation of her three-year-old daughter at their family home in east London.
When her home was raided police found evidence of spells apparently intended to thwart the investigation.
Eight-year-old Victoria Climbie was tortured to death in 2000 by her great aunt and her partner after a preacher from Christian sect the Universal Church of God convinced them she was possessed.
Her death resulted in an inquiry as well as a series of safeguarding initiatives, including a national action plan to tackle faith or belief-based child abuse that launched in 2012.
“Rising cases of child abuse linked to faith or belief are extremely worrying and are destroying the lives of children and young people in communities across the country.
Children’s services departments need to have the funding to address the huge demand for help from children and their families and maximise the effectiveness of prevention and intervention work.”
Cllr Anita Lower, the LGA’s lead on FGM and chair of the National FGM Centre’s advisory board
How to report a concern
If you or someone you know is, or is at risk of becoming, a victim of Female Genital Mutilation, Honour Based Violence or Forced Marriage, contact Warwickshire Police on 101. In an emergency call 999.
For confidential, non-judgmental and independent support in Warwickshire, call Refuge – Warwickshire Domestic Violence Service on 0800 408 1552.
If you have concerns that a child is suffering ANY form of neglect, abuse or cruelty, contact the Warwickshire Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub (MASH) on 01926 414 144.
Out of usual office hours you can contact the Emergency Duty Team on 01926 886 922.
Professionals will need to complete a Multi-Agency Referral Form, accessible here.