In Benin, Voodoism is an official religion. As part of this culture, children who are ill can be sent to be healed in Voodoo convents. After much research and consultation in the community, we discovered that many children were spending up to 7 years in Voodoo convents. By the time the time children are healed, they have often missed out on their education and are unable to fulfil their potential.
We were keen to tackle this issue, so we decided to work closely with the chief Voodoo priests and local authorities to show them why children should go to school and spend less time in convents.
We can’t forbid children from going into convents – it is part of the Voodoo culture. In many communities, going into a Voodoo convent is seen as one form of education. Our main focus is to protect children who live there, and our ultimate aim is to send all the children living in convents back to school.
Children face many dangers in convents. They are exposed to corporal punishment and scarification. When children undergo scarification, the same tools are often used repeatedly which can transmit diseases such as HIV. Instances of sexual violence in convents have also been reported and we are working with authorities to encourage survivors to report abuse; it is important that survivors are protected and perpetrators are brought to justice.
More girls live in convents than boys. In Benin, boys get sent to school while girls stay at home, leaving them at a higher risk of being sent to convents.
When we first started this initiative, it was met with some resistance. We needed to have many meetings with the community, parents and local authorities before priests agreed to collaborate with us. We have now signed a Memorandum of Understanding with chief Voodoo priests detailing how we can work together. We have been able to convince priests that children need to go to school and the time they spend in convents should be reduced.
Our impact so far
Children used to spend 3 to 4 years in convents, which was having a detrimental impact on their education. Because of our work with chief Voodoo priests and the community, we have been able to reduce it to 3 months.
This project has meant that hundreds of vulnerable children are now going to school and we are supporting them with school materials. If this project wasn’t in place, those children would still be living in the convents and probably would not ever go back to school.
Some children living in convents are orphans. They end up in orphanages once they are released. Where possible we try and reintegrate them with their extended family.