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Harmful Religious Practices

What are harmful religious practices?

These can be certain religious (and cultural) practices, or behaviours/rituals carried out by children (in the school context) in the name of religion, which cause harm to others (children and adults, as well as animals).

Certain religious (and cultural) practices

These are religious (and cultural) practices that harm children and/or are contrary to the law. These practices impact negatively on a child’s development, physical and emotional wellbeing, their learning and school attendance.

Some examples are:

  • Preventing a child from receiving medical care because of religious belief (e.g. no blood transfusions/surgery for certain religions, often resulting in death; either physical and/or mental illness not being understood as such, and therefore not treated – instead, for example, being labelled as ‘possession’ etc.)
  • Child/forced marriages (including ukuthwala – the abduction, by an individual or group, of a girl, with the intent to force her into a marriage to which she and her family would not otherwise consent)
    • Physical harm done to a child as part of a ceremony
    • Not abiding by the Children’s Act for rites/practices, such as circumcision and virginity testing
    • Breast “ironing”
    • Female genital mutilation

What to do.
In cases such as this, it is important to balance working in a non-judgemental and inclusive manner with the family of the child, where possible, and protecting the child against further harm. The law says we must make sure that the best interests of the child guide all decision-making, and that the rights of the child are to be protected.

  • Behaviours/rituals carried out by children (in the school context) in the name of religion, which impact negatively on the child’s own wellbeing or the rights of others.
    For example:

    • Mutilation / sacrifice / murder of humans or animals
    • High-risk behaviours, including self-harm

Factors contributing to children becoming involved in these practices include dysfunctional and/or broken families, abuse, neglect, poverty; unmet needs for a sense of belonging and agency/power/control, as well as for recognition; and undiagnosed or treated psychological or psychiatric disorders. This behaviour is frequently accompanied by substance use and abuse. Furthermore, children involved in these practices often use religion or the ‘spirit world’ as a reason or justification for their behaviour, showing that they can’t or won’t take responsibility for their actions.

In cases where a child is engaging in harmful religious practices, a thorough assessment of the child’s background, family relationships and psychological health needs to be conducted, and a multidisciplinary and holistic intervention made. Should a crime have been committed, the child should be taken through the criminal justice system in accordance with the Child Justice Act

SAPS: 10111
Johannesburg Parent and Child Counselling Centre: 011 484 1734
Child Welfare / DSD / Statutory services
Johannesburg Parent and Child Counselling Centre: 011 484 1734
Tara Hospital 011 535 3000

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