Followers of Voodoo, an official religion in Benin, believe that many illnesses are caused by spirits. Children who fall ill are often confined to Voodoo convents run by Voodoo priests to be healed. Those children can spend up to 7 years in the convents, completely disconnected from the outside world.
In the convents, children are made to sing, dance and learn a new language but they don't receive a formal education. Many are marked with knives or razors. Children are eventually released once the oracles deem they are healed. By this time, many children are unable to reach their potential, having missed a large proportion of their education.
Chief Priest Dhossou Yaovi, has been healing children for many years. “Voodoo is our traditional religion,” he says. “If children fall sick, their parents seek treatment through Voodoo gods within our convent. It has proved a very effective medium of healing.”
Madeleine, 10, lived in a convent for 2 years. "I had to undergo scarification. There was so much blood," she says. “I didn’t like it in the convent because I wasn’t allowed to go to school. I didn’t learn anything apart from singing and dancing.”
Djofin Assou Gilbert works for RESPESD, a network of national NGOs working in partnership with Plan International to help children in the convents return to school. “I am not a follower of Voodoo, but I wanted to know why children weren’t going to school,” he says. “One of the elders told me so I went to see the President of Voodoo Convents in Couffo. We discussed the situation and he agreed that the time children spent inside needed to be reduced.”
Together with RESPESD, Plan International has been working with Voodoo priests in Couffo for a year. Following consultations, the Voodoo priests have agreed to release the children after just 3 months.
Mama Hounza Tognon Mahouchi, is President of the Voodoo Priests in Couffo and has been working with Plan International to facilitate the early release of children.
I felt so happy. I am able to go to school and learn again
“Several months ago, Plan International asked me to discuss the time children spent in convents. As a result, a decision was taken to reduce the time children spent there. I told the other priests - they didn’t resist and were able to see the importance of education. Plan International helped us to see how children could come out of the convent after 3 months and continue their education.”
Plan International Benin Programme Unit Manager, Michel Kanhonou says, “We were able to convince chief priests that children needed to go to school. We can't forbid them from going into convents – it is part of the Voodoo culture. Before this practice hopefully ends, our main focus is to protect children who live there, realise their rights and help them go to school.”
Over 300 children have been released from the convents so far. Of those, 280 have returned to school and 30 have gone into apprenticeships.
A further agreement has been put in place that states if children enter a convent, they will only live there for 3 months during the holiday period so they don’t miss out on school.
Eric 13, who was released recently says, “I felt so happy. I am able to go to school and learn again.”
“Voodoo convents have posed a unique challenge,” says Plan International Benin Country Director, Rheal Drisdelle. “Voodooism is a religion people firmly believe in.
“Last year, there was a formal ceremony where all the priests in this area came together to sign an agreement promising they would release children from the convents.
“To allow children to leave to get an education is a huge transformation,” says Drisdelle. “We must support the leaders and the Voodoo community – it will have a great impact on the lives of these children. Through consultations a generational change is being achieved to give children the future they deserve.”