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 exercise their rights. Recently, we have been working with local Voodoo priests and community leaders to ensure that vulnerable children are not denied an education.
Through this work, 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.
Kanhonou also 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 and hear firsthand as they share their personal experiences.
Before I entered the convent, I was going to school, but when I fell sick my parents brought me here. I was left in solitude for the first 3 months. I wasn’t allowed to do anything.
After 3 months, the healing rituals began. We were taught a new language, how to sing and dance. I also had to undergo tribal markings. It was very painful and there was so much blood.
I stayed in the convent for 2 years and I was so happy when I learnt I would be leaving the convent, thanks to an agreement with Plan International. When I came out, it took a month before I was able to feel normal again.
I am now going to school. I you don’t go to school, you don’t know anything and you grow up and do nothing. I enjoy math, French, biology and science and hope to become a headteacher some day.
I was unconscious when I arrived in the convent, I was just 12. When I woke up, I was told I was sick and that was why I’d been brought here. I didn’t like the convent, I felt so unhappy.
While I was there, I had to learn to sing, dance and drum. I also had to learn a new language. I wasn’t allowed out at all. The living conditions were also very bad and we didn’t get much food to eat.
After 1 year, I was told I was allowed to leave because of a Plan International project. I felt so happy. I was able to go home, but because I have no parents, my uncle sent me to live in an orphanage. To this day, I still don’t know what happened to my parents or what caused their death.
I am happy living in the orphanage – the living conditions are much better. I am able to go to school. I want to continue my education and I hope to become President of Benin one day.
When I was 8, I was very sick. I had a stomach ache and I was vomiting a lot, so I was rushed to the convent – that’s where I woke up.
While I was in the convent, I was dressed in beads. I was given a new name and I was trained in singing and dancing. I didn’t like the convent and I suffered a lot. There was no toilets, no safe drinking water. I hated it.
I stayed in the convent for 1 year and was so happy to learn that I was allowed to leave. Since then, I have been able to go back to school and I enjoy learning.
Every child has the right to education
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.”
You have the power to make education a reality
Millions of children around the world are denied their right to education every day. But you have the power to change that. Donate today to help send 1,000 South Sudanese refugee children living in Uganda to school.
To make a donation, please call us at 1-800-387-1418.