When are cultural practices against the needs of an individual?


8 July 2011

TRUE OR FALSE? 1) A woman accepts her exile saying ‘If they say I’m a witch, then I must be’. 2) Children are selected for ritual killings for being left handed, geniuses or dyslexic? 3) Cameroonian girls have their pubescent beasts ‘ironed’ to attempt to help them disappear? 4) Oath rituals are used to coerce children into trafficking? Read on for the answers and explanations.

As you might have guessed, all four questions are ‘true’. Whilst being aware of the impact of interfering on an African cultural practice in a way not deemed to be ‘confrontational’ and Western, who can stand by and not engage when the rights of children are at stake?

I recently saw the UK premier of the documentary movie ‘The Witches of Gambaga’. Gambaga is a sanctuary for 200 women accused of witchcraft, and exiled by their families. ‘Guilt’ is established by the arbitrary way a chicken dies following accusation by a man or child. ‘Wings down’, and the woman is a witch – condemned to a life of isolation and hard labour.

Throughout history, social control and patriarchal structures have been maintained by accusing women of persecution – often when communities faced crisis or change. Women who are strong, independent and successful are at most risk of accusation. The ‘witches’ are protected by the Chief, Gambarrana, yet he gains from family payments and a ‘confession’ to be given ‘refuge’; family payment and ‘chicken up’ wings to ‘leave’, and continuous labour as the women witches tend his crops for their duration – often years away from husband, children and businesses. The film helps raise women’s voices against this practice to pressurise Chiefs and stop women being scapegoats for unrelated issues.

In many African traditional beliefs, supernatural powers involving sorcery or magic are involved in controlling people or events, via a witch. Many children are branded witches, to explain unanswered phenomena. New communities to the UK face many social and economic challenges, including poverty, unemployment, housing, health and bareness issues. These are attributed to child ‘witches’, who can be subjected to exorcism, abuse and punishment and even death – leading to a need for child protection against ‘witchcraft abuse’.

Breast ironing is carried out by mothers massaging their daughter’s pubescent breasts by heated objects to attempt to make them disappear. The concept is that this will protect the girl from sexual harassment or rape (leading to pregnancy, that would tarnish the family name). It also allows the girl to pursue education rather than be forced into early marriage. In Cameroon, if a girl has breasts, she is deemed ‘ripe for sex’. The practice happens for up to 53% of girls, equating to 4 million Cameroonian girls. The resultant health issues include burns, deformities and psychological trauma similar to FGM. Young mothers are being encouraged to campaign to end the practice, which can now lead to a prison sentence of 3 years, yet continues

Forced marriage is also a problem in the UK, where the Welsh police are dealing with the highest levels of forced marriage and honour-based violence ever. Welsh forces dealt with 60 cases from March 2010 – 11. Head of South Wales Police says ‘people in the UK must have their basic human rights to determine their own future’. Yet, whose rights are in question here?

Child smuggling and trafficking are growing problems across the UK and Africa. In one recent 9 month period, 200 African children were trafficked, 89 coming from Nigeria. Some are used for slavery/domestic servitude; others for sexual exploitation; benefit fraud; forced labour or illegal adoption. My recent conversations with the Metropolitan Police, Afruca and the Damilola Taylor Trust share some hair raising case studies.

Many African children have beliefs in witchcraft, which make them susceptible to exploitation by traffickers. Elements of juju (priest) and oath rituals cause coercion and subjection, ensuring compliance. Victims are cut and terrified that if they ‘tell’ their secrets, the mini-gods will punish them.

What can we do? Being aware of issues such as these mean children will not suffer in our neighbourhoods. Be aware, and if you have concerns, advise the Child Protection Services.