Preventing Witchcraft Accusations and Child Rights Abuses in Akwa Ibom State, part 2
The Prevent the Abuse of Children Today (PACT) campaign team has concluded its school outreach program in Eket senatorial district in Akwa Ibom state. The outreach targeted schools because we believe they are places where we could ‘catch them young’ in terms of preventing the abuse of children today – and tomorrow – in Akwa Ibom state. The schools are places that we can empower children and young people to defend themselves. In the first leg of the tour (February 28 to March 4), the PACT team visited schools in Oron, Okobo, Urue Offong Oruko, Udung Uko, and Mbo . And the second leg of the tour (March 7- 11) the team was at Esit Eket, Eket, Ibeno, Onna, Eastern Obolo, and Mkpa Enin LGAs. The tour was another opportunity to take the PACT campaign message of stopping the abuse of children in the name of witchcraft to a critical segment of the local population, and to ignite the flame of enlightenment in communities ravaged by the forces of dark age and superstition.
On Monday, March 7 the team was at Esit Eket and performed at Eket Modern High School and Community School Edo. Over 2000 students and teachers turned out for the performance. On Tuesday, March 8, the team staged its drama at CDA Secondary school and Government Secondary school in Eket. Over 4000 students watched the drama in both schools. On March 9 the campaign team toured Ibeno and Onna. We performed at Secondary Grammar School Ibeno and Onna People’s High School. Around 4000 students watched our performance and shared their thoughts about witchcraft accusations and related abuses. On Thursday March 10, the PACT team visited Community Secondary School Iko Town and Okoromita Comprehensive Secondary School in Eastern Obolo LGA. Around 1,500 students watched the drama performance. And on Friday, March 11, the team was at Mkpa Enin and performed at Secondary School Ukam and Community Technical College. Over 1500 students watched the performance, asked questions and received awareness materials – calendar, T-shirt, posters and stickers. Many teachers and students who watched the drama said it would take some time for the local population to embrace our campaign message and asked us not to relent in our efforts.
In the course of the tour there were unexpected outcomes. For instance, at the end of our performance at Eket Modern High School, a student named Abigail informed us about a case of witchcraft accusation in her family: that some family members had threatened to exile two children accused of witchcraft. We gave her our contacts and some campaign materials and asked her to contact us if the situation worsened. Also three children, Esther, Uwana and John, who allegedly confessed to be witches, were presented to the Commmission of Inquiry set up by the Akwa Ibom state government to verify claims of witchcraft accusations and child rights abuses. The children were later handed over to the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and Social Welfare for proper care. At the Ministry, the children were interviewed by a top government official who confirmed that the children actually said they were witches, and that one of the kids said that somebody gave her witchcraft and she infected the brother using local ‘afang’ soup. This official believed what the child said and was reluctant to take the kids to the state-owned shelter. She feared these ‘witch children’ would infect others at the Center. All my attempts to get this top government official and others at the Ministry not to take these confessions seriously fell on deaf ears – very deaf ears. I tried to get them understand that these ‘confessions’ of the children were pronouncements which these traumatized children had been compelled to make, and which they repeated whenever asked, and that their confessions were a result of their abused and ‘broken’ family background and upbringing and had nothing to do with witchcraft. In fact at one stage I challenged this top government official to get the child to give me the withcraft or put it in ‘afang’ soup or in any food at all and I would take it. And they were staring at me as if I was out of my senses.
I did this to let them know that child witch confession was all nonsense, and that it was stupid for any adult to take such ‘confessions’ by children seriously. All my arguments were irritating the woman and at one point she almost walked me out of the office. She felt I was making unnecessary arguments and expressing foolish and useless doubts about what she saw as a clear case of child witchcraft that was before us. In fact the woman told us how she was bewitched by her househelp. According to her, the househelp inflicted her with some sickness and later confessed to her, and the illness later stopped. She sent the househelp away. I wanted to ask her if she had not taken ill since then. Or if the househelp was never sick when they were living together.
But that would have annoyed her all the more. Anyway the children were, at last, taken to the state-run children’s home at Shelter Afrique in Uyo where they are currently staying.
One of the factors hampering the efforts of the government of Akwa Ibom state to eradicate witchcraft accusations and child rights abuses is that most of the government officials believe in witchcraft, and believe that children can actually be witches; hence most of them are reluctant to take adequate care of these innocent children. So the Akwa Ibom state government lacks competent hands and critical minds to effectively address the problem and implement its child rights law. I think the PACT campaign team should explore ways of taking its Operation Enlightenment to government officials in Akwa Ibom state. Officials at ministries of Women Affairs, of Justice, Information, Education and other relevant agencies need programs that will help them shed the superstitious belief that children can be witches so that they can be intellectually and psychologically equipped and disposed to tackle this menace. Government officials in Akwa Ibom state urgently need some reorientation to ensure the safety, security and survival of the state’s witch children.