Playing at a price

Words by Merve O’Keefe

The act of children playing is a beautiful phenomenon as natural as breathing. Through play, children develop a sense of self and learn how to interact with the world around them. Children’s amount of play correlates to their physical, cognitive and emotional growth. Research demonstrates that children are particularly drawn to playing outside since they can experiment with the outside world while broadening their innate creativity. Playing is such a vital component of childhood that it’s protected under the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child – the most widely ratified human rights treaty in history.

In a Turkish university, 21-year-old management student Fathima was asked to write an essay about the benefits of children playing outside. To her lecturer’s surprise, she drew attention to the fact that in her home country of Mali, children were unable to play outside due to the danger of being kidnapped and sacrificed as part of dark magic rituals.

Indeed, in many African countries, ritual killings of young children are still a reality and a persisting threat to innocent lives. Witch doctors perform rituals using body parts of kidnapped children to bring luck and wealth. They usually mutilate the children while still alive, as they believe this makes the magic more powerful. These sacrifices occur most frequently in times leading up to elections as politicians are claimed to commission sacrificial killings to increase their chances of success in the polls. Since even government officials are said to be involved, it does not come as a surprise that there is a wide disparity between statistics collected by different bodies on the animosities. Ugandan police records recorded 10 cases of child sacrifice in 2013 whereas Humane Africa reported 77 . In some communities, such as those residing in parts of South Africa, ritual killings are seldom reported due to cultural beliefs. Children with albinism, biracial children, twins, and their parents are most commonly targeted to be abducted and mutilated.

I met up with Fathima and listened to her account of the situation. Being a twin herself, she and her twin brother had especially been in danger of being abducted growing up, and they had never gone outside to play unless accompanied by their parents or nanny. She disclosed that even while going to school they had to be dropped off and later picked up by their driver because kidnappings occurred even while walking unaccompanied to school. Since not every family can afford nannies, drivers and security in their homes, it is the marginalised and poor that suffer the most from these ritual practices. Even the fact that low-income families cannot afford toys at home is a factor that pushes their children outside to play – making them targets for abductors, she says.

Children aren’t safe from the threat of being kidnapped and sacrificed even in their own homes.  The latest incident occurred in 2017 where armed men broke into a family home in Mali while a mother was sleeping with her two daughters who had albinism. The men snatched one of the girls, five-year-old Djeneba Diarra, and jumped the wall surrounding their house. Her mother tried to chase the kidnappers but then turned back to protect her second daughter. Djeneba’s decapitated body was found near a mosque and it’s believed that she was killed as part of a ritual sacrifice ahead of the upcoming elections.

Fathima also shared her feelings on the incident: “I couldn’t sleep for two nights after I read [Djeneba’s] story. Many more stories aren’t reported on so we hear news of most of them through social media. The government doesn’t take necessary measures to stop the suffering. Corruption is so widespread that even if the killers are caught, they are rarely prosecuted. The public has lost faith in the authorities serving justice and has instead started to take justice into their own hands.”

The paramilitary police headquarters in Fana, a small Malian town where the sacrifice killing took place, was set on fire in outrage of the lack of security in the country. Activists are demanding justice and calling on the state to carry out its responsibilities.

Fathima has hope that these recent protests will prompt the government to take necessary measures to look after the children, prosecute kidnappers and stop the suffering ahead of the looming elections when children are most at risk.

When asked if she planned to return to Mali,  she replied, “my country needs me.” Once she graduates, she is passionate about going back and working to stop the kidnapping and ritual killings of children. She believes that raising awareness, increasing education and ensuring that the government is fulfilling its responsibilities of establishing security in the country will contribute to the eradication of this problem.

In most parts of the world, playing outside is so natural and commonplace that we take it for granted, while evidently, in some parts of the world playing outside can have devastating implications. If you agree that children should be able to fully exercise their fundamental right to play without fear of being kidnapped and killed, please join us in calling upon the government of Mali to take measures to stop these  crimes against children.

How You Can Help

Sign the petition to call on the Malian government to prevent ritual killings of children. You may also donate to these charities to stop ritual killings from occurring across Africa: Children Under the Same Sun, URICT Uganda, Children on the Edge.