In the West African country of Benin, Voodooism is recognized as an official religion. As part of this culture, children who become sick are often removed from their families and school, and confined to Voodoo convents to be healed. Here, they are made to sing, dance, undergo scarification and learn a new language.
Children can spend up to 7 years in these convents, completely disconnected from the outside world, and by the time they are released; many children find it challenging to reach their full potential after having missed out on a large part of their childhoods.
Plan International has been working in Benin for over 20 years to help children access their rights to healthcare, nutrition, education and protection. Recently, we have been working with local Voodoo priests and community leaders to ensure that vulnerable children are not denied their right to learn and grow.
With Plan’s support, over 300 children have been released from Voodoo compounds and many more are spending months as opposed to years separated from their communities.
“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,” says Plan International Benin Programme Unit Manager, Michel Kanhonou.
Mr. Kanhonou stressed the challenges of changing deeply engrained religious beliefs and the importance of working with communities to achieve lasting change.
“Before this practice hopefully ends, our main focus is to protect children who live there, realize their rights and help them go to school.”
Meet 3 of these courageous children who are now returning to school after spending years in Voodoo convents, and see how they’re getting a second chance at a brighter future.
During 10-year-old Madeline’s time at the convent, she spent her days cleaning, sweeping, singing and dancing. She also had to undergo a tribal marking ritual where both her cheeks were cut.
“It was very painful and there was so much blood.”
After 2 long years isolated from her family and community, Madeline was released, thanks to Plan International’s support. She is now going to school and living with her parents, but admits that it’s taken a lot of time to start feeling “normal” again.
“Girls spend far too long in the convent. If you don’t go to school, you don’t know anything and grow up and do nothing. Now I have come out and I am able to continue my education.”
For over a year, Eric was forced to sing, dance and drum. He also had to learn a new language and was completely disconnected from the outside world.
When Eric was released, he learned that his parents had passed away and that he would be sent to an orphanage. But despite the additional hardships he’s facing, this resilient young man retains a positive attitude about the present and the future.
“I am able to go to school and my favourite subjects are science and biology, physics, math, sports and English. I want to continue my education and I hope to become the president of Benin one day.”
These days, however, a lot has changed for Gisele.
“When I heard I was leaving the convent, I was very happy as I hoped to become an apprentice,” she says. “I am now living with my parents and training to be a seamstress.”
Gisele is currently enrolled in an apprenticeship program implemented by Plan International, and she explained how having an opportunity to improve her life situation was particularly important in her community since many girls are expected to become dependent on their husbands.
“In my community, men have greater advantages than women. People just think girls will grow up, marry and leave home – so there’s no need to invest in them. The boys, however, will continue to stay at home and build houses.”
Changing the future for children
Plan International works closely with local communities to identify problems and find solutions that serve the best interests of children.
To date, 280 boys and girls in Benin have returned to school with 30 who will have gone onto apprenticeships. In the years to come, a further agreement has ensured that all children will reduce the time they spend in confinement to only 3 months, and only during holidays so they don’t miss out on school.
“To allow children to leave to get an education is a huge transformation,” says Plan International Benin Country Director, Rheal Drisdelle, adding that Voodoo convents posed a unique challenge for Plan International staff since the religion is widespread.
“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.”
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