From JEAN KASSONGO in Kinshasa, DRC
KINSHASA, (CAJ News) – WOMEN and children accused of witchcraft are bearing the brunt of the political crisis and the age-old beliefs in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has rarely enjoyed calm since the advent of independence in 1960.
Children, who are also vulnerable to recruitment into armed groups, have emerged the most scathed by crisis, particularly in the volatile eastern parts.
Thousands of minors are in combat in the ceaseless conflicts in the Central African country.
Another emerging and disturbing trend is the prevalence of so-called child witches.
Thousands are held in churches across the country in operations aimed at exorcising them of the so-called demons.
Some so-called deliverance rituals include torture, starvation, isolation and beatings.
Minors have been killed, assaulted and rejected by family, driving them to the streets on accusations of sorcery because they are disabled. Orphaned children are also tormented by relatives for being responsible for the death of their parents even if medical records indicate the cause.
Such children are outcasts alongside abused women and single mothers who have had their rights violated leaving them further vulnerable to violence and exploitation.
Women have been raped during the decades-long conflict.
Having been rejected by their communities and society at large, these outcasts are denied access to education, which has long term ramifications on their future.
It is against this background pro-Catholic Church groups have intervened.
The Salesian Missions is providing young children and older youth an opportunity to go to school.
The organisation formed in 1859 has some 28 000 Priests, Brothers, Sisters and novices serving in the spirit of founder, Don Bosco, an Italian Catholic priest who devoted his life to fulfilling the needs of orphans and vulnerable children.
Beneficiaries are within South Kivu province.
The project by missionaries educates 30 children and 40 older youth. Many are former child soldiers, street children, children accused of witchcraft, abused women and single mothers.
They are provided transport and equipment. Schools are supplied with desks for teachers and students, salaries for teachers area also paid.
The academic training begins with remedial education with a focus on literacy to raise the students’ knowledge base in order to prepare them for advanced skill training.
Students are provided with meals daily while sports are held twice a week.
“Most of these young people have very limited education,” said Father Mark Hyde, executive director of Salesian Missions.
He pointed out they had attended few years of primary school and had left because their circumstances did not allow them to continue in school.
“Salesian missionaries started the educational project so youth and single mothers could learn a trade and gain employment, breaking the cycle of poverty and becoming contributing members of their community.”
Salesian primary and secondary schools and programmes are hailed for laying the foundation for early learning while Salesian trade, vocational and agricultural programmes offer many the opportunity for a stable and productive future.
Fr Eric Meert, a Belgian Salesian missionary, is particularly touched by the plight of street children, said to number 250 000 in DRC.
They are known as “shégués” in the jargon of the street.
“They are the forgotten children of Africa. But sometimes, some of them, meet the Salesians who offer to take care of them, and then their future can change,” said Meert.
While missionaries are committed to changing the lives of these rejected members of the community, the choice of a new life must come from the outcasts.
“If children decide to leave the road will follow a rehabilitation path long and detailed, focused on literacy, schooling, psychological and spiritual assistance and, subsequently, vocational or technical training,” Meert added.
According to the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner for Human Rights, in the past, witchcraft accusations in the villages of the DRC were generally directed at elderly women, with only rare instances of exorcism or abuse resulting.
Since the early 1990s, particularly in large towns, accusations have shifted to children, the number of such allegations skyrocketed. The subsequent treatment has become increasingly violent.
“It appears to be a phenomenon that has not and does not exist in rural areas apart from a very few ill-documented exceptions in areas affected by the war. Thus, common cultural roots have been distorted from their primary meaning, the UN agency stated.
Save the Children, the minors’ rights group, stated accusations of witchcraft against children seemed to take shape during African families’ transition from traditional organisation to urban life.
“It is important to note that the fusion of the imaginary and the real leads to violent actions against children and even murder.”
– CAJ News