MORE than 400 years ago 12 women were accused of witchcraft and hanged in Lancashire...and you would imagine the 17th century is where such beliefs and practices had been left. But, as SAIQA CHAUDHARI finds out, accusations of witchcraft are very much a part of 21st century life right here in Bolton.

HORRIFIC human rights abuses linked to certain beliefs in witchcraft take place around the world ­— and are said to be increasing in scale.

And cases of possible child abuse connected with witchcraft and spirit possession ­have even been identified in Bolton.

Eight such potential abuse cases were noted by social services in Bolton in 2017/18 ­— down from 2016/2017 when there were 23 such possible cases, Department for Education statistics show.

A leading expert at the University of Bolton is trying to raise awareness of the abuse and develop ways of preventing it.

Dr Samantha Spence says the North West has one of the highest number of violence incidents related to accusations of witchcraft in the UK.

She is working with the United Nations to raise awareness of such child abuse cases.

She said: “People often ask me about my work and refer only to the historical element of witchcraft abuse. They are shocked when I tell them that it is actually happening today, both globally and here within the UK and it is on the rise.”

READ MORE: Meet the Bolton academic at the forefront of the fight against witchcraft

Faith and belief-based incidents include abuse of child who is branded a witch or said to be possessed by “evil spirits”and ritualistic abuse which is prolonged sexual, physical and psychological abuse.

Abuse may happen anywhere, but it most commonly occurs within the child’s home.

In 2000, the death of 11-year-old Victoria Climbie shocked the nation. The youngster was murdered by her aunt and her aunt’s boyfriend, who believed she was possessed by an evil spirit and the case gained an international profile.

In 2015 two people were convicted of the manslaughter of Ayesha Ali, whose body was found at in Chadwell Heath, east London.

Dr Spence, a law lecturer who specialises in human rights issues, says reported incidents have risen by 11 per cent in the past year.

Abuse connected to witchcraft and spirit possession belief happens when a family or community is struck by bad luck or tragedy and look to lay the blame on someone around them — most usually a family member — who they believe might have influenced the event by practising magic.

Bolton Council would not reveal details of the 31 potential cases of such abuse recorded by social services in the borough since 2016.

A spokesman said: “Any form of abuse towards children is completely unacceptable.

“We work closely with our partners to identify and respond to any cases to ensure children are safeguarded from potential harm.

“From our experience we know that cases are not confined to one faith, nationality or ethnic community.

“Anyone who has any concerns about the welfare of a child should report this to us or the police.”

READ MORE: The chilling child killings linked to accusations of witchcraft


A range of factors can contribute to the abuse of a child for reasons of faith or belief.

Common ones are: Belief in evil spirits ­— belief in evil spirits that can “possess” children is often accompanied by a belief that a possessed child can “infect” others with the condition. This could be through contact with shared food, or simply being in the presence of the child.

Scapegoating ­— a child could be singled out as the cause of misfortune within the home, such as financial difficulties, divorce, infidelity, illness or death.

Bad behaviour ­—sometimes bad or abnormal behaviour is attributed to spiritual forces.

Examples include a child being disobedient, rebellious, overly independent, wetting the bed, having nightmares or falling ill.

Physical differences ­— a child could be singled out for having a physical difference or disability. Documented cases included children with learning disabilities, mental health issues, epilepsy, autism, stammers and deafness.

Gifts and uncommon characteristics ­— if a child has a particular skill or talent, this can sometimes be rationalised as the result of possession or witchcraft.

Campaigners warn that the latest data is likely to drastically underestimate the true number of children being abused because victims and families are reluctant to speak to social services, who record the data which is then published by the Department for Education.

Campaigners fear more children could be killed unless preventative action is taken.

Experts are keen to stress that a belief in witchcraft, which forms part of everyday life for some people and does not cause harm, is vastly different from when others choose to carry out harmful acts as part of their beliefs.