The government has announced plans to tackle the “wall of silence” around the abuse and neglect of children accused of witchcraft, following the brutal murder of Kristy Bamu, who was tortured to death in London in 2010 by his sister and her partner after they said he was a witch.
Key charities say many cases of “ritual abuse” are under the radar and that the belief in witchcraft is on the increase in the UK.
Under the new plans, the government aims to identify and prosecute more offenders by raising awareness of faith-based abuse and its links to trafficking, missing children and sexual exploitation or grooming. The goal is also to help the victims give evidence.
Tim Loughton, the children’s minister, said: “Child abuse is appalling and unacceptable wherever it occurs and in whatever form it takes. Abuse linked to faith or belief in spirits, witchcraft or possession is a horrific crime, condemned by people of all cultures, communities and faiths – but there has been a wall of silence around its scale and extent.
“It is not our job to challenge people’s beliefs but it is our job to protect children. There can never be a blind eye turned to violence or emotional abuse or even the smallest risk that religious beliefs will lead to young people being harmed.”
Kristy Bamu was 15 when he arrived in London from his home in Paris to visit his sister and her boyfriend for Christmas. Eric Bikubi, the man he referred to as his uncle, became fixated with the idea that he was practising kindoki or witchcraft. With increasing violence, Bikubi, 28 when he came to trial, tried to “exorcise demons” from the child.
During the torture, described during the trial this year as a “staggering act of depravity and cruelty”, the 15-year-old was deprived of water and sleep, and punched and kicked repeatedly. Floor tiles were smashed over his head and his teeth were hit out with a hammer.
The trial followed the case of child B – an eight-year-old Angolan girl who was beaten and cut, and had chilli rubbed into her eyes after being accused of being a witch in 2003 – and that of eight-year-old Victoria Climbié murdered by her guardians 12 years ago.
Despite low reported figures of ritualised abuse, police have warned that the crime is “hidden and under-reported”.
Under plans drawn up in the national action plan to tackle child abuse linked to faith or belief, police, social workers and others who come into contact with potentially abused children will get more training. It recommends that children should have better access to therapy and emotional support after abuse.
Drawn up with faith leaders, charities and the Metropolitan police, the plan urges local communities and churches to work more closely together to prevent abuse.
Loughton said: “There has been only very gradual progress in understanding the issues over the last few years – either because community leaders have been reluctant to challenge beliefs which risk leading to real abuse in their midst; or because authorities misunderstand the causes or are cowed by political correctness.
“This plan will help people recognise and know how to act on evidence, concerns and signs that a child’s health and safety is being threatened.”
The research is limited and there are few official statistics concerning the abuse of children accused of witchcraft. In the past 10 years there have been 81 recorded police investigations in London of faith-based child abuse, while research commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills in 2006 analysed 38 cases involving 47 children, from Africa, south Asia and Europe, all of whom had been abused in the name of possession or witchcraft.
Research for the education department on child abuse linked to faith, based on previous findings, is expected by the end of the year.
Mor Dioum, director of the Victoria Climbié Foundation UK, welcomed the move to recognise faith-based child abuse. “By bringing the issue into the open … we can better protect and support members of our communities when they seek to highlight their concerns. However, we need to work more effectively with families to achieve better outcomes for children and young people affected by this type of abuse,” he said.
Simon Bass, the chief executive of the Churches’ Child Protection Advisory Service, said a multi-layered approach was necessary to address the issue.
Pastor Jean Bosco Kanyemesha, representing the London Fire Church International, Peace International and Congolese Pastorship in the UK, said the government’s move “was an adequate response to resolve issues troubling our local communities”.
Debbie Ariyo, the director of Africans Unite Against Child Abuse, described the action plan as the first step taken by any government to seriously tackle ritualised child abuse, but said it was not going far enough. She called on the government to make it illegal to brand a child a witch.
“We would have liked to see the government go further but we believe this action plan will go a long way to encouraging voluntary agencies to take concrete steps to fight this type of abuse,” she said.