Couffo, Benin, is home to hundreds of Voodoo convents where children possessed by spirits are sent to be healed. Children have been known to live in these convents for up to 7 years, kept in captivity away from the outside world.
Through our close work with partners on the ground in Benin, we have been able to protect children of Voodoo convents in Couffo, reduce the time they spend in confinement and ensure that they go back to school and access their right to education.
Djofin Assou Gilbert is the Project Coordinator for partner Réseau des Structures de Protection des Enfants en Situation Dificile* (ReSPESD), a children's rights network in Benin. He tells us in detail the positive steps that were taken towards protecting these vulnerable children.
Discovering the Need
“A group of children were standing outside a convent, with just one woman looking after them. They weren't in school uniform and I wanted to know why they weren’t in school.
“The woman explained that if a child is ill, they are taken to the convent for 5 to 6 years to be healed and when they come out, there’s nothing for them to do as they have no education.
“I am not a follower of Voodoo, but I was desperate to find out more. Like many people in Benin, I’d heard of these convents, but I didn’t know what was happening inside."
Collaborating with Voodoo Priests
"I arranged a meeting with the chief of the convent. We talked about the benefits of going to school. He said he understood but he couldn’t make that decision on his own and it had to be discussed with the President of the Voodoo convents in Couffo.
“Following that meeting, I went to see the President. We discussed the situation and he agreed with my ideas. However, he put in place a condition that I needed to get indoctrinated into Voodooism to bring about reform. I had to take part in many rituals and undergo scarification on the side of my body. Even as a grown man, I could barely resist the pain.
“The scarification represents my membership to the Voodoo network. It gives me permission to go into every convent and to have open discussions with chief priests. There are so many secrets within these convents – many of which only people who are initiated know about."
Seeking Plan International’s support
“I realised if I was to take this issue further, I would need help, so I contacted child rights organisation Plan International who gave its full support.
“Together with Plan International Benin, we invited 73 Voodoo chiefs and local authorities to a meeting in Lalo. It took place in September 2015. At the meeting, the chiefs agreed I could visit all the convents so we could release the children.
“Last year 310 children (193 girls and 117 boys) were released from the convents and a memorandum of understanding was put in place, agreeing that if children had to go into convents, they would just stay there for 3 months, preferably during holiday periods."
Hope for future
“Today, we are working with 238 convents in total, but I am committed to finding more convents as I want this practice to end.
"The things these children endure are just too painful. If children are serving a certain spirit, they are not allowed to wear any clothes. They are mostly naked for their entire stay with only a small piece of material to cover themselves.
“It is a real struggle and it will take much more for this practice to end. This isn’t the type of project that takes just two years. We have achieved a lot so far and it makes me want to continue. When I see children coming out of the convent and going to school it gives me the strength to continue.”
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