A ‘witch girl’, Esther, rescued for the second time

Yesterday, I rescued for the second time an 8 year old girl, Esther Obot Moses who was branded a witch and exiled by her family in Nsit Ubium in Akwa Ibom state in Southern Nigeria.

Some weeks ago, I was informed by my local contacts that Esther, who was handed over to the Ministry of Women Affairs of the Akwa Ibom state government for proper care and rehabilitation, had returned to the ‘lunatic’, Okokon, who kidnapped her some time ago.

I met Esther and Okokon wearing pants in the same filthy house where I found them in January this year. Esther looked depressed and traumatized. Okokon, who is believed to have some mental problems, lives alone in a dirty two-room apartment filled with all sorts of rubbish. He has no wife or children. Okokon said that, this time around, Esther came to stay with him on her own.

According to Esther, weeks after she was handed over to the Ministry for Women Affairs, officials from the Ministry came and dumped her with her father in her village in Nsit Ubium. But the father later drove her out again. He asked her to go back to where she came from. Esther said she had to return to the house of Okokon.

I took Esther to a local police station in the state where she is staying at the moment. There are plans to take her to a privately owned orphange for proper care and rehabilitation.

Esther’s case is a clear indication of the enormity of the problem of witchcraft accusations and child rights abuses in Akwa Ibom state, particularly the poor handling by the government of Akwa Ibom state. Since 2008, Akwa Ibom has enacted the child rights law with provisions that criminalize child witch stigmatization. It has also taken other measures to address the problem of child witch hunting.

But these measures fall short of tackling this complex and complicated menace. Akwa Ibom state still lacks the facilities including the personnel – care givers and social workers – to cater for and monitor affected children. Some of the alleged child witches handed over to the Ministry of Women Affairs have disappeared and cannot be accounted for. Some of them, like Esther, who were forcefully sent back to their families without proper reconciliation and rehabilitation, have since returned to the streets or to the abusive circumstances they were rescued from.

Instead of putting in place the necessary facilities by training or employing competent hands, setting up effective public enlightenment programs to dispel the myth of child witchcraft, and improving the enforcement of the child rights law, the government of Akwa Ibom state is busy clamping down on the programs of NGOs and child rights acitivists meant to address the same issue.

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