KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of Congo -- Naomi Ewowo had just lost her parents when her family branded her a witch. She was 5.
After her mother and father died unexpectedly less than a month apart, Naomi's care fell to relatives who struggled to cope with the tragedy. They sought counsel from a neighborhood "prophet," who warned that a sorcerer was hiding in their midst. Soon all eyes turned on the family's youngest, most vulnerable member.
"They blamed me for killing my parents," said Naomi, now 10, swinging her short legs under the seat of a chair.
The girl was cast out by relatives and lived on the streets until she moved to a rescue center three months ago.
"They say I ate my father. But I didn't," she said. "I'm not a witch."
On a continent where belief in black magic and evil spirits is common, witch hunts are nothing new, usually targeting older, unmarried women.
But in the Democratic Republic of Congo, there's a new twist to this ancient inquisition. Children now account for the majority of allegations involving witchcraft and sorcery, making it the number one cause of homelessness among youths.
Of the estimated 25,000 children living on the streets of the capital, Kinshasa, more than 60 percent have been thrown out of their homes by relatives accusing them of witchcraft, said child- welfare advocates.
The practice is so rampant that Congo's new constitution, adopted in December, includes a provision outlawing allegations of sorcery against children.
A rise in religious fundamentalism, revival churches, and self-proclaimed prophets is one cause. More than 2,000 churches in Kinshasa offer "deliverance" services to ward off evil spirits in children, according to the group Human Rights Watch.
"Some prophets who run these churches have gained celebrity-like status, drawing in hundreds of worshipers in lucrative Sunday services because of their famed 'success' in child exorcism ceremonies," the group said in an April report.
But chronic poverty is the real culprit, said some specialists. Decades of dictatorship, instability and war have unraveled the nation's social fabric, tearing apart traditional family and tribal support systems. It is no coincidence that the majority of accused children come from poor, broken homes. Most are orphans or have lost one or both parents to divorce or abandonment.
When relatives are unable or unwilling to cope with an additional mouth to feed, they may look for ways to get rid of the child, said Charlotte Wamu, a counselor at Solidarity Action for Distressed Children, which assists street children.
In Africa, kicking out a family member, even a distant relative, is considered shameful, but allegations of witchcraft provide a convenient and hard-to-disprove justification.
"It's always the stepmother who finds witchcraft in the stepchild, not in her own," Wamu said. "The sorcerer is your dead brother's child, never yours."
Naomi, the only child of her father's second marriage, said his family never accepted her or her mother.
When Naomi's parents died in 2001, relatives took her from one prophet to another searching for a way to cast out her "evil spirits."
Sometimes the exorcism consisted of a quick prayer; other times, it was more involved. One preacher locked Naomi in a room for three days without food or water.
"I wanted to try to sneak some water, but I thought that would only make my problems worse," she said.
She was probably right. Child-exorcism ceremonies can include brutal treatment, including beatings, burnings, and the use of saltwater, orally and anally, to "purge" the children, said the group Save the Children.
The forced confessions leave many children confused and guilt-ridden.
"They start to believe they've done something wrong or that they really are witches," said Evariste Kalumuna, head of the rescue center that took Naomi off the streets. Kalumuna said that when he disciplines the children, they sometimes threaten him with their "powers."
"They say: 'Look out. I'm a witch. I'll hurt you,' " Kalumuna said. "Believe me, if they really were witches, I would have been dead a long time ago."