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Child abuse linked to faiths believing in witchcraft on the rise

by Press Association

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 per cent.

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.

CEO of Christian safeguarding charity Thirty One Eight Justin Humphreys told Premier the data is concerning but it's good that there is a growing awareness of the issue and incidents are being reported.

He added that it's an issue that spans faiths, not just Christianity.

"We see certain practices and beliefs such as belief in spirit possession, being central to some of these children's experiences, and it's not in a sense, necessarily the fact that there is a belief in spirit possession, but it's the way in which the children are treated as a method of exercising them or releasing them of the demon or the spirit that they believe is possessing the child.

"So it's the it's the actions of the adults around the child that cause the issues, not the belief as such, that is causing the issues here."

Eight-year-old Victoria Climbie (pictured above) 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.

Humphreys said more awareness needs to be raised about the issue.

"There is a major awareness raising campaign that is needed here. And the All- Party parliamentary Group for Safeguarding in Faith Settings that was established last year by Sarah champion and Michael Tomlinson MP has launched an inquiry that is looking at this very issue so that we can understand what the multi-agency responses to this form of abuse are. So there's lots that we need to do across professional groups and communities to better understand the issues here."

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 per cent 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.

Leethen Bartholomew, the centre's head, told the PA news agency: "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."

He added: "They use children as a scapegoat for that misfortune that they are experiencing."

Mr Bartholomew said it was difficult to give exact reasons for the increase in cases of belief-based child abuse in England.

He added: "Some of it is linked to cases of child trafficking where children are taken through different practices like witchcraft, juju and black magic to silence them - as a form of control."

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.

Mr Bartholomew said: "The work we do is around giving professionals the knowledge and skills to be able to ask the right questions to have that professional curiosity and that religious literacy."

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.

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.

Humphreys added that training for key individuals in churches and faith-based groups across the country is vital to tackle the issue. 

"We need to go further than just raising the awareness so that we can fully equip and upskill those people who are tasked with being concerned about the abuse of children and taking those matters forward.

"So it's not necessarily that everybody within a church needs the same level of information, but there are key people who will need to know this is a genuine issue. You need to be alert to it. Certain areas and communities, as the data for the Children in Need census would indicate, may have greater prevalence than others. So it's about being aware of that level too."

Listen to Humphreys speaking with Premier's Tola Mbakwe here:

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