When she was eleven years old, Aline Kabilia's step–uncle tried to force her to drink acid, and then poured it on her face and right arm. Aline's family believed she was a witch, who was to blame for their poverty and her half–brother's ill health. The brutal acid attack was an attempt to exorcise the demons from the young girl, after starvation and repeated beatings had failed.

Aline is one of thousands of children in the Democratic Republic of Congo who have been accused of witchcraft by their families. The children often suffer horrific abuse; they may undergo traumatic exorcisms and be cast onto the streets to fend for themselves.

Joyce Brandful, UNICEF's communication officer in the capital, Kinshasa, says: "Many people believe in witchcraft, even if they don't openly admit it. So it is not difficult for people to believe that evil can dwell in a child. The Christian religion is practised alongside cultural religious practices. There is a general belief in supreme beings, a belief in good and a belief in evil. People are not shocked when someone is accused of witchcraft."

Many people in Africa believe in witchcraft and flesh–eating witches. Politicians may suspect the use of magic if they lose elections and businesses frequently employ diviners to safeguard their interests from the spells of competitors.

In the DR Congo, evil spirits are blamed for many misfortunes. Children have become easy scapegoats for unemployment, illness and hardship. Save the Children says there are approximately 30,000 children living alone in Kinshasa's streets and it is thought that up to 60 per cent of these are abandoned 'witch children'.

Many of the 'little sorcerers' are orphans who were placed with foster parents or children accused by their step–families. They all come from a background of economic difficulty. Aid workers say they have not uncovered one case where an affluent family has pointed the finger at a child.

There are two factors driving the witch children phenomenon. Congolese society has collapsed, and the number of churches has massively increased. Over 2,000 new Pentecostal churches have opened in the past few years, each offering salvation to a people desperate for hope after years of bloodshed.

In 2002, after five years of civil war, the DR Congo signed a complex peace deal ending a war that involved forces from eight other countries. It is estimated that up to 4.7 million people died during a conflict which left deep scars on the country.

Poverty is crippling the Congolese people. The economy has collapsed and the currency has rapidly depreciated. A civil servant with 15 to 20 years of experience now earns an annual income equivalent to just $50 (approximately £27). Salaries are paid irregularly and inflation is spiralling.

Health, education and welfare services remain in disarray. One in five children dies before its fifth birthday and 31 per cent of children have never attended school. One in five adults is HIV positive and the average life expectancy at birth is just under 49 years.

According to Trish Hiddleston, a child protection officer with UNICEF: "The root causes are desperate poverty, and an increase in evangelism, which is a reaction to that poverty. Convenient excuses like sorcery or demon possession are used, whether purposely or unconsciously, to get rid of unwanted children."

On almost every street in Kinshasa there are small churches where preachers and pastors say that Satan and witches are the source of all ills. Congo has four main religious groupings: Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, and the Kimbangists, who blend traditional African beliefs with Christian worship. It is mostly the newly emerging Protestant churches and the Kimbangists who advocate belief in witchcraft and identify children as witches.

Parents who suspect their children of witchcraft make a donation of money or goods to church leaders and ask for a divine explanation of their woes. The pastor prays and then returns with his revelation. Joyce Brandful says: "Sometimes they won't even know the child by name; they say 'this child who is in this family and who looks like this'. They will give some indications and leave it vague, but enough for someone to settle on a child in the family."

The accused are subject to vicious attacks by their family; children have been burnt, scalded, starved, given traumatic exorcisms, and some have even been ironed. If the children do not run away from home to escape the abuse they may be thrown out anyway.

Prophet Onokoko is one of many Christian ministers in Kinshasa offering to exorcise children. He prefers to purge children of demons by making them take laxatives and emetics. They are forced to swallow and later regurgitate foreign objects, which Onokoko then displays as proof of demonic possession. He told BBC investigators: "We had a girl here who vomited a large prawn. When it came out she was at peace." Prophet Onokoko has over 200 children on his books that have either undergone or are awaiting exorcism.

Mahimbo Mdoe, a Save the Children representative in Kinshasa, told the BBC: "[in Onokoko's church] children are made to vomit up things that have been inserted into them unnaturally. Two eyewitnesses have told us of objects like bars of soap being inserted into the anuses of children. It all shows just how vulnerable children in Kinshasa are if they get thrown out of their families accused of being child witches."

The streets of Kinshasa offer little protection for abandoned children; there are not enough places in shelters and few social workers. Some children find places to sleep under bridges but most sleep out in the open. Many have to beg, steal or do petty jobs to support themselves, they are exposed to drug use and some become involved in drug networks.

Street children can fall prey to sexual exploitation by 'protectors' who offer support and safety but sexually abuse the children or put them to work in the sex industry. The children have no access to health facilities, school and very little access to places where they can receive any kind of social assistance.

Nine–year old Betty Kabaya's parents left her with an uncle and aunt when they went to find work. They never returned and Betty's situation deteriorated. When her baby cousin became ill, Betty was blamed, and when her uncle threatened to kill her she fled. A man found Betty sleeping rough and raped her; the shocked and bleeding girl was eventually taken to hospital to have her wounds stitched.

The stories of Aline Kabilia and Betty Kabaya are just two of many similar cases being reported from the Congo. Aline and Betty are now safe in shelters. Aline attends school and studies dressmaking. The workers at the shelter in Kinshasa where Betty lives managed to find her parents — but they refused to take her back.

The phenomenon of Congolese witch children finds an echo in the British case of eight–year old Victoria Climbié. Believing their child would receive a good education in Britain, Victoria's parents sent her from the Ivory Coast to live with her aunt Marie Thérèse Kouao in north London. Victoria's incontinence proved to her aunt that the child was demonically possessed.

Kouao and her partner Carl Manning subjected the girl to appalling levels of physical abuse. Their ill–treatment of Victoria included beating her with a bicycle chain, tying her up and wrapping her in bin liners to prevent her wetting herself.

Kouao told Pastor Pascal Orome of the Mission Ensemble Pour Christ church in south–east London that Victoria's injuries were due to demons. Orome prayed for Victoria and said she was "delivered from witchcraft or wicked spirits". He saw angry wounds on the child's head and that her hands were covered with scars but did not believe the injuries were due to abuse. He said of Victoria that it was "the first time I see such a problem of evil spirits in a child of seven or eight".

Within sixteen months of arriving in England, Victoria died of hypothermia. The Home Office pathologist who examined her found 128 injuries on her body and said it was "the worst case of child abuse" he had ever seen.

In January 2001, Marie Thérèse Kouao and Carl Manning were given life sentences for Victoria's murder.

The Congolese witch children receive little justice in life or in death; very few parents and guardians who accuse, abuse and abandon children as witches are prosecuted. The leader of the new transitional government in the Congo, President Joseph Kabila, has stated: "I myself came from a large family and I could easily have been taken as a child witch. We have to start punishing those who abuse children this way and we need to make sure families are able to take care of their children."

The traditional belief in sorcery is so entrenched that members of the community are reluctant to come forward and give evidence against abusers. Joyce Brandful hopes that increasing levels of public sensitisation and awareness will change attitudes: "I think we should not let the adults who do this go free, they have to be brought to book because they cannot continue to inflict pain on, or even murder children by accusing them of sorcery."

Julie–Ann Davies is a freelance journalist currently based in London