The Spirit Child Phenomenon: How Ghanaian communities are ending the fear

AfriKids UK’s newest member of the team, Kristin, explores the age-old belief in “spirit children” and what communities are doing to address it. Here she reflects on her childhood love for Halloween and the role that fear plays in issues surrounding child rights.

October is here and soon Halloween will be upon us. I remember dressing up for Halloween as a child and having the adults in my neighbourhood jokingly jump back in horror when they saw me, briefly pretending to be afraid before giggling and handing me sweets. Of course, these are light-hearted memories, which makes it even harder imagining what it would be like if your family or community actually feared you or believed you were “bewitched”. However, for some children in rural Ghanaian communities, this is a reality.

In some of the communities where AfriKids works in northern Ghana, disabled children are labelled as “spirit children” who are believed to be “bewitched” and thought to bring harm on their communities. In these circumstances, communities are forced to make the impossible choice between one child’s life or the survival of their entire community, as they perceive it. This is known as the Spirit Child Phenomenon, and is a complex, deeply rooted social and cultural issue that can leave children vulnerable to being neglected, abused or even killed.

Fear of bewitched people has existed in many cultures across the globe throughout history, including our own. Here in Europe, it’s estimated that up to 100,000 people were executed in the witch trials that took place between 1450 and 1750 because their communities feared them to be threatening magical entities.

It’s hard to imagine that kind of fear but, like most fear, it comes from something we misunderstand or struggle to explain. Without easily accessible health services and information, it can be hard to explain disabilities and misunderstood medical conditions, which can lead communities to believe a child is “bewitched”. That’s why AfriKids is working to increase the healthcare available to rural communities and protect the rights of perceived “spirit children” by increasing awareness and understanding.

Since our local team of staff first set to work on this issue in 2002, they have ended the harmful practices associated with The Spirit Child Phenomenon in 58 communities and prevented an estimated 243 “spirit child” deaths. They have increased awareness of disabilities, trained community members as child rights advocates, educated families on how to care for children with disabilities and provided physiotherapy to help improve the quality of life for children living with disabilities.

As awareness and information sharing grows in these communities, the fear of “spirit children” is being replaced with the passionate pursuit of equal rights for all children.

AfriKids is the only charity to have successfully helped communities end this fear and I think that’s a demonstration of why local leadership is the only way to achieve truly sustainable change. Through local programme leadership and firm principles of sustainability, AfriKids has created lasting change that has benefited 953,018 people like Gerald.

You can read Gerald's inspiring story here.

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AfriKids UK Head Office:
AfriKids, Unit G05,
The Record Hall,
16-16A Baldwin's Gardens,

+44 (0) 207 269 0740

AfriKids Ghana Head Office:
PO Box 166
Upper East Region

+233 (0) 3820 97134

Registered charity in England and Wales: 1141028
Registered NGO in Ghana: DSW/3024
Registered in The Netherlands. Tax no: 8238.13.289