Writes Stuart Rennie:
In June this year, three Angolans in London were convicted of abusing an eight-year old orphan Angolan girl by (among other cruelties) beating her with a belt, cutting her with knives, and rubbing chili peppers in her eyes. But it was not just the gruesome details that caught the British publics attention. It was the motives for the torture: the girl was regarded by her tormentors as a witch. What might seem an obvious case of child abuse was, in the eyes of the perpetrators, a matter of do-it-yourself exorcism.
The case has drawn attention to the fact that in central African countries plagued by war poverty and state collapse, a significant number of children are regarded as witches. While general beliefs in witchcraft and spiritual possession is not at all uncommon in countries like Angola or the Democratic Republic of Congo , the idea of the child-witch is relatively new and deeply disturbing. Children as young as three years old can be accused of bringing misfortune on households everything from unemployment to the death of family members and cast out into the street to fend for themselves. According to Save the Children, 60% of the 30,000 street children in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, are accused of being possessed by evil spirits, capable of casting spells, flying at night, transforming into non-human animals or consuming human flesh. Children infected by AIDS are particularly susceptible to accusations of witchcraft.
The child-witch phenomenon in Central Africa has spawned a veritable industry of self-appointed healers. Family members who want to rid their child of demonic possession often turn — with what little money they have — to traditional African practitioners or evangelical ministers. In either case, the child may be forced to undergo painful exorcisms, in abominable conditions, sometimes lasting days. Some dont survive the ordeal.
What has all this got to do with bioethics? Plenty. Bioethics is not just about the ways North Americans and Europeans come to terms with the ethical implications of their expensive technologies. Those who practice bioethics in central Africa have little choice but to reflect critically on how traditional healing practices and influential local forms of religion impact on health and human rights. The influence of beliefs in witchcraft and satanic possession in these regions is unlikely to diminish soon, but local bioethicists could do a great service by redirecting these energies away from the most vulnerable members of society.
Stuart Rennie is a Research Assistant Professor in bioethics at UNC-Chapel Hill. We missed you; welcome back.