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Criminalise witch label, says activist

24 August 2012

LABELLING a child as a witch should be criminalised, a member of the working group behind the Government's new plan to tackle child abuse linked to faith and belief has argued.

The chief executive of Africans Unite Against Child Abuse, Debbie Ariyo, said on Tuesday that the action plan, launched on Tuesday of last week, was a "very good first step in the right direction", but that it should have gone further, in prohibiting the labelling of children.

"When you brand a child a witch, that is a serious form of emotional abuse, which is not recognised in UK law," she said.

Dr Richard Hoskins, a research fellow in criminology at the University of Roehampton, agrees. "The plan says 'We are clear that this is not about challenging people's beliefs,' and I think that is wrong; it's the elephant in the room," he said on Friday. "The problem is there is such a close link between branding a child a witch, through to something that is abusive. . . Not to tackle the belief is to avoid the real crux of the issue.

"As long as you have got people saying that a child is possessed, that opens the floodgates for a child to be abused, and even to say that to a child puts them under incredible pressure in the family home. It links so directly to further types of abuse that we have to tackle this."

The plan, published in the wake of the murder of Kristy Bamu, a 15-year-old boy accused of witchcraft ( News, 9 March), was developed by a national working group with agreement between central government and faith leaders, charities, and the Metropolitan Police. It notes: "Not all those who believe in witchcraft or possessions harm children," but states: "It is never acceptable to harm a child, no matter what you believe."

The focus is on "wider engagement with faith and other communities" to bring about a "shared understanding" of child-protection principles. This includes training social workers to understand faith-based abuse, and ensuring that local safeguarding children boards (LSCBs) engage with faith groups.

The chief executive of the Churches' Child Protection Advisory Service, Simon Bass, believes that this is "the right approach. . . There is clearly a concern that local authorities and social workers do not know how churches operate."

He disagrees with proposals to criminalise the branding of children as witches: "we do have legislation available in terms of anyone who harms a child. What we need to do is to ensure that it is enacted."

The lack of government funding attached to the plan has caused also concern. Of the 11 NGOs on the working group, three receive government money: the NSPCC, Children and Families Across Borders, and the Victoria Climbié Foundation; the rest rely on charities.

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