Don’t dismiss witchcraft claims as mental health problems, police told

Child abuse claims linked to a belief in witchcraft should not be dismissed as “mental health problems and delusion”, new guidance for the Metropolitan Police has stated.

Witchcraft-related abuse, which police fear is on the rise after the pandemic, is occasionally linked to female genital mutilation and occurs when a person or a child is accused of being possessed by demons.

In 2019, a 37-year-old Ugandan mother was imprisoned for inflicting female genital mutilation on her young daughter, a case that prosecutors suspect was driven by witchcraft. The court heard how spells and curses intended to deter police investigations were found at the woman’s home before her trial.

The Met acknowledged that such cases are often “missed or misdiagnosed”.

The new scheme, launched on Tuesday in collaboration with local authorities, universities and female genital mutilation charities, will train officers to flag concerns “whilst steering clear from negative and damaging stereotypes”.

Removing taboo

Insp Allen Davis, from the Met’s Crime and Vulnerability team, said: “The knowledge and awareness of these offences are not where they should be, and a wide range of professionals need to recognise the potential for abuse in certain situations.

“Practitioners may not recognise the risk of harm involved, chalking up these accusations to mental health problems or delusion. We need a concerted and co-ordinated response, where this issue is ‘championed’ locally so that it ceases to be viewed as a taboo issue and hidden harm. 

“Despite its complexity and the cultural sensitivities involved, we need to mainstream our response and ensure professionals are confident to discuss beliefs in a careful but direct and professionally curious manner.”

Dr Naomi Richman, from the University of Cambridge’s Amber Project, said: “Efforts are needed to break down the stigma in beliefs in witchcraft and possession, as these are common to so many cultures around the world and are rarely used to justify harm. 

“The Amber Project seeks to equip audiences with the tools to navigate cultural and religious sensitivities, so that they can feel empowered flagging concerns whilst steering clear from negative and damaging stereotypes.”

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