Until 10 to 20 years ago, women and the elderly were considered the ones most at risk of being identified as witches. But now thousands of children ages 8 to 14 -- most of them boys -- are being accused, with the majority of them orphans, abandoned street kids, albinos and the disabled, including those suffering from autism and Down syndrome.
Overall, "executions of alleged witches have reached alarming levels" in a large majority of African countries, the study concludes.
Albinos are often killed because of the belief in parts of sub-Saharan Africa that their body parts, including hair, skin and limbs, contain magical powers.
Civil wars, political instability and Africa's growing urbanization, together with poverty-stricken families' inability to provide for their children, are listed among the factors that have contributed to the increase in witchcraft accusations against children.
"In the past, it was thought that development, urbanization, modernization, education or the adoption of Christianity or Islam would lead to the disappearance of beliefs and practices related to witchcraft," the report says. But far from fading away, "witchcraft is no longer limited to the domain of the secret or unspoken," the report says, adding, "It is present in every aspect of daily life."
According to an African news site, exorcism of children accused of witchcraft "has become a competitive and lucrative business." One evangelical preacher was recently arrested in Nigeria, the BBC reports, after charging more than $250 for each exorcism.
In some cases, the "cleansing" procedures include pouring gasoline into the children's eyes.
"The children would be forced to admit being witches and then asked to tell the accusers who passed on the witchcraft to them," a UNICEF official told the BBC. "More than 20,000 street children had been accused in the Democratic Republic of Congo capital Kinshasa," the agency's regional child protection officer for West and Central Africa, Joaquim Theis, is quoted as saying.
Countries with the highest rate of child witchcraft allegations, according to the study, are Angola, Benin, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria.