The number of children accused of witchcraft in parts of Africa is increasing significantly, with orphans, street children and disabled mostly at risk, Unicef has said.
A new Unicef report has warned that children accused of being witches, some as young as eight, have been burned, beaten and even killed as punishment. Also, children have had petrol poured into their eyes or ears as a way of trying to exercise "evil spirits" that healers believe have possessed them.
However, the belief that a child could be a witch is a relatively modern development, according to researchers. Until 10-20 years ago, it was women and the elderly who were accused.
Unicef said the rise in vulnerable children being abused in this way is linked to greater urbanisation in the continent and disruption caused by war. The growing economic burden of raising children is also thought to be a factor, the BBC reported.
The agency said there was little it could do about the belief in witchcraft itself, and that it was not trying to eradicate the practice. But it said violence against children was wrong, and that it would do everything it could to stop it.
Unicef's regional child protection officer for West and Central Africa said over 20,000 streetchildren had been accused of witchcraft in the Democratic Republic of Congo capital Kinshasa.
Such children were beaten and sent away from their homes, Joaquim Theis said and added:
"The children would be forced to admit being witches and then asked to tell the accusers who passed on the witchcraft to them."