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KOUANDE, 18 July (IRIN) - Unless a baby is born head first and face upwards, many communities in northern Benin believe the child is a witch or sorcerer. And tradition demands that the infant must be killed, sometimes by dashing its brains out against a tree trunk.
In the eyes of the Baatonou, Boko and Peul people, a child whose birth and early development deviates in any way from the accepted norm is cursed and must be destroyed.
If the parents are compassionate, the baby is simply abandoned to die in the bush or be found and rescued by a charitable soul.
"Farmers going to their fields or women on their way to the market regularly pick up abandoned babies and bring them to us," said Alexis Agbo of the Child Reception and Protection Centre (CASE), a local child welfare group.
But if the parents of an ill-born baby obey the demands of tradition, the infant is handed over to a "fixer." He ties a rope around the child's feet, walks several times round a tree and then dashes its head against the trunk.
Alternatively, the fixer may drown the child or poison it to exorcise the evil which it is deemed to have brought into the world.
It doesn't take much for a child to be sentenced to death in this way. It is enough for the infant to be born feet, shoulders or bottom first, or head first but facing towards the ground.
If the mother dies in childbirth, if the child fails to grow its first tooth before the age of eight months, or if its first tooth appears in the upper jaw, it is equally condemned.
"It is a horrible act which spills the blood of newborn babies in the name of tradition," said Boni Goura, a social anthropologist and member of the Baatonou ethnic group, who has joined several child welfare activists in trying to abolish infanticide in northen Benin.
Father Patrick Sabi Sika, a Roman Catholic priest who is also from the Baatonou ethnic group, is also in the forefront of this campaign.
He has formed a child welfare group called Hope Fights against Infanticide in Benin (ELIB). This campaigns to abolish the practice of killing babies who are not born in the accepted way and helps care for those unwanted infants who are simply abandoned.
ELIB is today caring for about 30 children abandoned by their parents and has arranged for many more to be adopted.
Father Patrick, who works among his own Baatonou people in Kouande district, 600 km north of the capital Benin, believes that part of the solution lies in providing proper medical care for women giving birth.
Education and maternity care needed
He pointed out that since the construction of a maternity clinic in the nearby village of Sekoudougou two years ago, over 300 babies born in a way deemed to deviant by local people had been spared
But child-protection groups in this desperately poor West African country of 6.5 million people acknowledge they have a long way to go.
"Ritual infanticide is far from being eradicated," admitted Agbo of CASE.
Despite the education and awareness campaigns conducted by child welfare organisations, many rural communities in northern Benin continued to practice infanticide "with impunity," he said.
Agbo and Sabi Sika also stressed that even when these rejected "child sorcerers" survive, they remain stigmatised by the communities in which they live and are often blamed for bringing misfortune upon their own families.
Discarded infants are a common sight in many regions of Benin, a former French colony sandwhiched between Nigeria and Togo which has deep traditions of witchcraft, or juju.
"The infants who survive by a miracle or by good luck are paradoxically marked and traumatised forever with a feeling of guilt," Father Patrick said. "Their social integration is difficult. They are always pursued and the threat of death hangs over them if the family experiences any misfortune," he added.
These children even face discrimination from their classmates at school the priest said, noting that they were often taunted with jibes such as "You are a witch, you can't eat me."
But not everyone is hard hearted.
Adoption for the fortunate
Romain Babagbeto and his wife, from the Peul ethnic group, adopted a little "witch" girl from ELIB after the birth of their third son.
The couple always wanted to have a girl and came to the charity to seek one for adoption at the suggestion of a friend.
They settled on one child who had been abandoned by her father at a nearby health centre after her mother died in childbirth. Babagbeto explained that the man had told the staff there that if he took his newborn daughter back home his neighbours would kill her.
"She was a Peul, one month old," Babagbeto said. "Now she is two and a half years old. My other children are very happy to have a little sister."
The baby they adopted was a twin. The couple later returned to try to adopt her brother too only to learn that he had died three months after being separated from his sister, Babagbeto said.
ELIB is calling for the Benin government to establish laws to protect the lives of threatened children and to punish those who commit infanticide.
"Without a wish to denounce any particular ethnic group, and even less heap shame upon it, I want justice and the law to apply to all children," Father Patrick said.
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