British headlines buzzed last week with the conviction of a London couple for the death of a 15-year-old boy whom they violently abused because they believed him to be a witch. However, as shocking as it may sound, this is not a secluded incident. Violence against people accused of being witches is a growing problem in the U.K., spilling over from a major, ongoing problem in other parts of the world, especially India and Africa.
Mid-day on Christmas 2010 authorities in London responded to a call about a child who had drowned in a bathtub. What they found indicated foul play. The child, Kristy Bamu, had lacerations, bruises, and was missing teeth. He was under the care of his older sister, Magalie Bamu, and her boyfriend, Eric Bikubi. In testimony given in court by family members, the victim had wet himself, causing a fight with his older sister. She and her boyfriend Bikubi assumed he had been possessed by demons and began an exorcism ritual.
Bukubi was familiar with exorcism, a practice popular in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he and the Bamus were from. Bukubi had previously accused a roommate of being possessed by demons. The ritual calls on fasting, praying, and the beating of the "possessed witch" in order to drive out the evil. After days of torture and fasting, Kristy was put into a bathtub, where authorities say he was too weak to raise his head above water, causing him to drown.
Magalie and Bikubi's convictions for the murder of Kristy brought the issue of growing violence against alleged witches in the U.K. to the forefront. Scotland yard told the BBC that they have investigated over 80 faith-based child-abuse cases in the last decade.
African studies expert Dr. Richard Hoskins says the subject of faith-based abuse has been regarded as taboo because "when it comes to fundamentalist religious belief affecting child protection, we don't seem to want to talk about it." John Azah, chairman of the British Federation of Race Equality Councils, agrees, telling the BBC, "[Politicians] are too scared of being accused of racism."
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the problem is much worse. UNICEF reported that in 2010, 20,000 children accused of witchcraft were living on the streets in the capital city of Kinshasa.
However, the problem persists throughout Africa. Just last week a couple accused of witchcraft was lynched by a mob in Kenya. By the time the police were made aware of the situation, it was too late. The brother of one of the victims told the Nairobi Star he believed a rival in a land dispute accused the couple of witchcraft, inciting local villagers.
Witchcraft is also said to be responsible for the maiming and deaths of albinos in Africa. In this case it is the witch doctors who seek the limbs of albino people. They sell for thousands of dollars on the black market. According to a recent ABC News story, 64 albinos have been murdered in Tanzania alone for their body parts.
Africa is not alone when it comes to witchcraft-related violence. According to the National Crime Bureau in India, over 2500 women have been killed for being suspected of practicing witchcraft. In December 2010, the Jharkhand State Women's Commission in India held a daylong national conference titled "Atrocities faced by women labeling them as witches -- problems and solutions."
In the U.S., modern views on witches seem to be trending more positively. Television shows and movies often feature witches as young heroines, like Samantha in the popular television show Bewitched. The popularity of the Wicca religion has also helped. Many people who practice Wicca identify themselves as witches. However, Wicca is largely focused on worshiping nature and caring for others.
The Salem witch trials are regarded as ancient history in the U.S. It is difficult to fathom that such atrocities continue to affect thousands of innocent men, women, and children throughout the world.