In northern Benin a baby born with a tooth, in silence or feet first is likely to be killed out of fear that the infant is cursed, according to local NGOs. Despite efforts to stamp out sorcery-linked infanticides, the practice persists.
Mohamed Alidou with the Association for the Protection of Unfortunate Children (APEM) told IRIN that customs and ignorance about childbirth lead people to label some babies as cursed “abnormalities” who must be destroyed immediately - by throat-slitting, poisoning or drowning, or slowly through abandonment and starvation. “Whatever the method, the goal is always the same: the physical elimination of the child,” said Alidou.
Ya Mouda, 70, in the village of Ségbana – 500km north of the commercial capital Cotonou – said children with what are seen as deformities are feared. “Children born with teeth are considered as having come to this world to devour people, and especially if it is a girl. [The belief is that] she will kill her mother’s family and her own mother.”
Babies who emerge feet first are believed to have come to this earth to dominate, added Mouda.
Local author Victor Akpovi, who started documenting child ritual killings in 2004, told IRIN that communities practicing sorcery - mainly the Baatonou, Boko and Peul ethnic groups - vilify deformed or otherwise atypical babies as “witches out for human blood, man-eaters, criminals and cursed children.”
Akpovi said family members secretly decide whether a newborn should be sentenced to death.
APEM’s Alidou said the secrecy thwarts attempts to measure the problem, but that ritual infanticide contributes to the country’s high infant mortality rate.
Some 60 percent of children who are judged “abnormal” are killed, according to the Ministry of Family’s director Nicolas Biaou, who oversees the northern regions of Borgou and Alibori - two heavily affected areas. “Cultural pride explains why the phenomenon persists. The Baatonou people, for example, want their group to be pure. Anyone judged as impure is eliminated.”
For years, non-profit organisations, religious leaders and community members have intervened to rescue babies. APEM’s Alidou said there are neighbourhoods made up of survivors. “Many children were saved by a traditional [village leader] chief, Omar Ky-Sama…They live in peace in Ségbana in a big neighbourhood.”
But he said that children who escape ritual killings are still regarded as being cursed as adults. “There are moving testimonies [in northern communities Ségbana and Kalalé] of 50-year-old men who were able to escape one ‘sentence,’ only to face another,” said Alidou.
“Even with our awareness campaigns, the phenomenon has not decreased,” Alidou told IRIN. “We ask ourselves why people do not understand.”
The government’s Biaou told IRIN national attention to infanticides is limited because it is seen as a regional ethnic concern. “Because this is not considered a national problem affecting all ethnic groups, it is hard for us to push for a national law criminalising it.”