Franciscans at the forefront of human rights: Brother Auguste Agounpké OFMCap 

Among certain ethnic groups in northern Benin, a child’s characteristics at birth and in the months that follow are crucial to its survival. From their position during delivery to the way they are teething, they can be accused of being a “witch” child. According to traditional beliefs, they then becomes a curse for their family and the whole community and must be eliminated. 

We met with Brother Auguste Agounpké, who has been involved in the fight against ritual infanticide for over 20 years. Although a lot of progress has been made since then, including the criminalization of the practice by Benin in 2015, it has not yet completely disappeared. Indeed, while abandonment is now more often chosen instead of killing, children accused of witchcraft still suffer from stigmatization and exclusion. We were able to discuss the local awareness-raising activities in which Brother Auguste has been taking part in, as well as his commitment to international advocacy. 

 Could you introduce yourself and your work on ritual infanticide in Benin?

My name is Auguste, I am a Capuchin friar and I work for Franciscains-Bénin. The first time I heard about so-called witch children was when I was sent on a mission to the north of the country in 2003. For me, it was strange, because this is something that doesn’t exist in the south. One day, a parish catechist came to alert the parish priest that an eight-month-old child was about to be executed because his first tooth had appeared on his upper jaw. We immediately got in the car and drove to the village. The parents were there but had no right to speak. It was up to the grandfather to decide the child’s fate. He agreed to let us take his grandson with us but confirmed that he would kill him if he saw him again. Then we had a second case, a little girl who had also started teething on her upper jaw. Her mother, who saw it right away, went to live with her parents for a while, so no one else would notice. But years later, she finally confessed it to her husband. Their daughter was already 9, but the father still wanted to get rid of her, so we had to rescue her. In total, we have saved a dozen children in this way. 

What are the different reasons why a child can be accused of witchcraft?

In addition to teething, which must begin with the lower jaw, the child’s position at birth is also very important. Indeed, the newborn must fall on its back while looking at the sky: if it comes out through the feet, shoulder, or breech, it will have to be put to death. As most women give birth at home, a village midwife is often in charge. But some of them take advantage of being the only ones allowed in the room – and thus able to witness the child’s position at birth – to settle scores. They may even lie in order to harm the woman giving birth, if they have had a dispute with her, for example. Finally, the number 8 is a bad omen in the tradition of the Bariba ethnic group. If a woman gives birth prematurely at eight months, this is not accepted. Similarly, a child should not grow their first teeth at eight months. 

What happens to the women who bring these children into the world?

As long as they agree to eliminate their child, there is no problem for them. However, if they decide to keep their child, they too will be in danger. I experienced this first-hand when I was up north. The niece of the bishop I was living with gave birth to a child in a “bad” position. With all the awareness-raising we had done in the region, she wanted to protect her child, and her husband, not being from the same culture, had no reason to want to sacrifice his baby. However, the mother’s family attached great importance to traditional beliefs. She and her husband had to flee the village to protect their child. If she had stayed, her life would also have been at risk. 

What were the main stages in your fight against ritual infanticide?

In 2007, we were invited by Franciscans International to attend a training course on the use of UN human rights protection mechanisms. I was with a Franciscan sister that I didn’t know at the time, Sr. Madeleine Koty, who had already saved five children from ritual murder. I had saved three. We decided it was important to bring this issue to the attention of the international community and submitted a report to the UN a few months later. Two countries responded immediately with recommendations to ban the practice. Back in Benin, we continued our awareness-raising work in local communities where the phenomenon is rife, and in 2012, with FI’s support, our NGO Franciscains-Bénins was created. By combining international advocacy with awareness-raising at the local level, I can say that, after years of work, things have changed a lot, and these children are no longer being systematically killed. However, fear persists, and children who are not born “the right way” continue to be abandoned. Occasionally, we manage to persuade a family to keep their child, but this remains the exception. 

Can you give us an example of an awareness-raising action you’ve carried out?

In northern Benin, we organized a week-long training course for five midwives. Some of these midwives have retained the tradition of telling their families the exact position of the child at birth. So, we worked with them to encourage them to keep the secret between the midwife and the mother. This project began last year and is due to run until 2025. We will also be continuing our awareness-raising campaigns in schools, with teachers, and among various sections of the population. I believe that these campaigns at different levels are essential if we are to succeed in changing mentalities. 

What are the next steps in your work to protect so-called “witch children”?

We are currently building a temporary center to take in children rejected by their families and keep them safe. The idea is that they can stay there while we find them a foster family, which can sometimes take months. We try to choose families who are sensitive to this issue and who are close to the children from a cultural and religious standpoint. Finally, we provide a monthly contribution to their overheads. This project is currently underway and is scheduled to run for the next three years. 

More information on the work of Franciscans-Benin and FI on the issue of ritual infanticide.

For more information, check out our main article on Franciscans at the Forefront of Human Rights.