Reports about child witchcraft are not uncommon in sub-Saharan Africa. In this study we approach child witchcraft as an idiom of distress. In an environment that may prohibit children from openly expressing distress, belief in witchcraft can provide a shared language to communicate about psychosocial suffering. We used an ecological approach to study how some children in distressing circumstances come to a witchcraft confession, with the aim to set out pathways for mental health interventions.
We employed rapid qualitative inquiry methodology, with an inductive and iterative approach, combining emic and etic perspectives. We conducted 37 interviews and 12 focus group discussions with a total of 127 respondents in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Inductive analysis was used to identify risk and protective factors related to witchcraft accusations and confessions.
We identified risk and protective factors related to the individual child, the family, peer relations, teachers and other professionals in a child’s life, traditional healers, pastors and the wider society. We found that in the context of a macrosystem that supports witchcraft, suspicions of witchcraft are formed at the mesosystem level, where actors from the microsystem interact with each other and the child. The involvement of a traditional healer or pastor often forms a tipping point that leads to a confession of witchcraft.
Child witchcraft is an idiom of distress, not so much owned by the individual child as well as by the systems around the child. Mental health interventions should be systemic and multi-sectoral, to prevent accusations and confessions, and address the suffering of both the child and the systems surrounding the child. Interventions should be contextually relevant and service providers should be helped to address conscious and subconscious fears related to witchcraft. Beyond mental health interventions, advocacy, peacebuilding and legislation is needed to address the deeper systemic issues of poverty, conflict and abuse.