Published on
02 May 2020

Communities are being urged to play their part in reporting their suspicions amid fears child abuse linked to faith and belief will increase because of the coronavirus crisis, but is largely going unreported.

Leethen Bartholomew, the head of the National FGM Centre, says families who believe in spirit possession and witchcraft will often think this is the reason for a death within the family, a period of illness, financial hardship or unemployment.

This belief system led to an increase in accusations of witchcraft during the Ebola epidemic and it is thought the current crisis could lead to this happening again.

The National FGM Centre, which is run by Barnardo’s and the Local Government Association, says the risk is heightened because the lockdown means teachers and youth workers are not able to pick up on this kind of abuse as easily. 

Also the abuse can be unrelenting because the children are not expected to be at school and so their abusers can target them 24 hours a day.

If vulnerable children or adults contract COVID-19 or are accused of bringing it into the home they could be labelled as being witches or possessed.

Some may believe that the cause has a religious or superstitious explanation, and contracting the virus is a misfortune and will blame a vulnerable individual for causing it.

Children or vulnerable adults, particularly women, who have been accused of bringing coronavirus into their home will then be abused in an attempt to get the sickness out of the ill person.

There is also a danger that those who have contracted COVID-19 or who are showing symptoms may not seek medical help and instead seek spiritual help which could result in a rise in exorcisms or deliverances to ‘drive out’ evil spirits associated with the virus.

Faith leaders may also make claims that they can cure COVID-19 through various means, such as cleansing oils. This could result in people attending faith settings and being exposed to the virus.

Children particularly at risk of being accused are those considered not “normal” e.g. with disabilities, mental health issues, suffering from developmental delays, or even bedwetting or considered to be ‘playing up’ during lockdown.

The National FGM Centre is especially concerned about this kind of abuse going unreported during the coronavirus crisis.

To ensure children are still protected the National FGM Centre has produced an infographic containing advice to communities about signs this kind of abuse might be going on near them.

It includes:

  1. If you are aware of local faith establishments still offering non-essential services, including to congregate, report to your local police
  2. Be aware of people accessing or being advised to to access alternative remedies from faith or other organisations instead of seeking medical attention
  3. Public emergencies heighten the risk of financial exploitation; be aware of individuals accessing alternative remedies which claim to cure or alleviate illnesses

Head of the National FGM Centre Leethen Bartholomew said: “In these uncertain times it is really about communities and family members being vigilant. 

“They have always been vital ‘eyes and ears’ of what’s going on but now even more so they need to be on the lookout for any signs a child may be in danger.

“Do not think you are adding pressure onto stretched social services by reporting any issues. If a child needs help and support then children’s social care will be there for them.”

National Police Chiefs’ Council lead Commander Ivan Balhatchet said:

“These are demanding times and many families will be dealing with issues related to illness, finances, and the pressures of being at home every day. 

“There is no excuse for the abuse and mistreatment of children and I want to be clear: the police will do everything we can to bring perpetrators to justice.

“We can’t, however, do this alone. The shutdown of schools reduces the opportunities for professionals such as teachers to be able to assess the welfare and wellbeing of children and young people. 

“National data shows that child protection referral levels commonly decrease during school holiday periods, and so, arguably, these are comparative times.

“We need communities and family members to be vigilant about the wellbeing of children and young people, now more than ever, and report any concerns to the police and other appropriate agencies.”

The National FGM Centre has also published a webpage aimed at social workers to compliment the e-learning on child abuse linked to faith and belief it released last month:

This is to help them tackle any cases they encounter.