Benin is the spiritual home of voodoo, a religion that spread from Benin to Haiti and parts of America during the slave trade. The West African country officially recognizes voodoo as a state religion.
Between September and October 2015, 310 children (193 girls and 117 boys) were released from voodoo convents in Benin as a result of the work of non-governmental organizations Plan International and ReSPESD.
Plan International has interviewed some of the children that were recently released, including Eric, 13, who arrived at a convent unconscious. "When I woke up, I was told I was sick and that was why I'd been brought here," he recalls. "I didn't like it in the convent. The living conditions were very bad and we didn't get much food. After one year, I was told I was allowed to leave. I felt so happy. I am able to go to school and learn again."
Voodoo healing ceremonies are expensive, and some parents agree to let their children work in the convents to pay for treatment. Paying back the debt can sometimes take years, and when a child is finally released, their parents aren't always still around. Such was the case with Houndedji, 9.
"My parents are dead and I don't know what happened to them," she recalls.
"Before I entered the convent I was going to school, but when I fell sick my parents brought me here," says Madeline, 10. "I was left in solitude for three months. I wasn't allowed to do anything... I had to undergo tribal marking. It was very painful and there was so much blood. It was everywhere. I am now going to school and I live with my parents. Girls spend far too long in the convent."
Houndedji, 6, lived at a convent for two years as a result of a stomach bug. "When I woke up (in the convent), I asked the priest why I was there and he said, 'This is where you will find life'. I was given a concoction and every time I took it, I was sick -- that was my treatment until I healed," she says.
Plan International is one of several charities that has opened up a dialogue with leaders in the community to change the conditions inside the convents. Houndedji Sowalos (right) says the charity has helped changed her thinking.
"Children who live in the convent suffer a lot. I wish they didn't have to endure such pain. We are now working with Plan International Benin to ensure children spend the least amount of time in the convent and that they don't miss out on an education," she says.
Mama Hounza Tognon Mahouchi, 85, is president of the Voodoo priests in Couffo, a district in the south of Benin. After talks with Plan International and ReSPESD, he helped enact reforms throughout the convents he oversees. "I let this go on because I was ignorant," he says. "Many talented people have been lost through this system," he admits.
In some cases, a voodoo god will be assigned to a child and symbolic scars will be carved into the skin. It was also part of the initiation into voodoo for Djofin Assou Gilbert, a project coordinator at non-governmental organization ReSPESD. "Even as a grown man, I could barely resist the pain," he recalls. "I kept thinking 'as long as it's for the children, I will do it.'"
The intervention of charities in the area has resulted in shorter confinement periods for children at some of the convents. Charities like UNICEF and Plan International are lobbying for these periods to overlap outside of the school term, so children can still get an education.