“Tall oaks from little acorn grow” , as the saying goes…. What was conceived primarily as an internet-based discussion forum six years ago has today become reputable as an organisation rooted firmly in the vanguard of championing the rights and welfare of African children.
Although based in the United Kingdom, AFRUCA is not restricted in its activities. In fact, to successfully champion its major cause, intense collaborative efforts with reputable parties such as government agencies and other non-governmental organisations (NGO’s) alike, are required in the formation and actualisation of its policies and drives.
These the organisation had been able to do with astounding success despite AFRUCA’s tender age. From holding induction programmes for newly arrived African children and their families in London, to successfully organising yearly conferences to raise awareness and educate on the needs of African children, it also produces publications and reports to assist people who work with children.
With a modicum of modesty, it could be said that AFRUCA is the only UK-based African charity vigorously working on counter-trafficking issues and an active contributor to the United Kingdom government policy development on children’s issues.
DEBBIE MODUPE ARIYO is the Executive Director of AFRUCA. Behind her genial smile and innocent, babyish mien, Debbie packs the punch. Her authoritative and confident approach to issues surrounding the sustenance of the rights and welfare of African children, whether at home or abroad, leaves one in no doubt that she’s passionate about AFRUCA’s cause and that the organisation is set to achieve further successes.
Tell us about AFRUCA. What needs did you primarily foresee to be met?
AFRUCA – Africans Unite Against Child Abuse – was established in May 2001 – about 6 years ago – to promote the welfare of African children. Initially, it was conceived as a platform to campaign against the abuse, bullying and exploitation of African children in the UK. In the years 2000 and 2001, a key subject dominated the airwaves as far as African children in the UK were concerned. This had to do with the frequency at which African children newly arrived in the country were experiencing bullying at school. A number of those bullying cases actually led to children being killed outside the home, at school. Cases like those of Jude Akapa, Damilola Taylor and other children newly arrived in the country really helped to drive home the point that a lot needed to be done to assist young Africans settle into their new lives in the country. While this was ongoing, practitioners, including social workers were reporting an increasing number of children going into the care of local authorities across London due to suspected cases of child abuse and neglect. This was highlighted by the case of Victoria Climbie, the 8-year-old girl from Cote D’Ivoire who was tortured to death by her aunty after being trafficked into the UK for benefit fraud. That case really shocked almost everyone in the UK.
What really concerned me at that point was that there was nothing on the ground for Africans in London to highlight issues facing them and their children as members of a relatively new community in the country. It was quite saddening to see various “experts” on TV attempting to analyse these issues without any knowledge or personal experiences of the issues they were professing to solve. At that time, it seemed to me that the issues could only be addressed by Africans themselves, hence the need to establish an organisation run by Africans who could work closely with others to solve the problems. This is why and how AFRUCA was established.
What was it like at the onset?
Actually there was a lot of goodwill from members of the community. There was a lot of willingness to support the work. Also, we had the support of some forward thinking bureaucrats especially in London. However, there were a number of constraints and in the early days, even though we started with a lot of good profile, that didn’t translate into financial support to progress the work of the organisation. A lot of funding organisations at that time said they couldn’t see the need for another children’s charity when the likes of Save the Children, NSPCC, Children’s Society and others were there. The concept of a community-based organisation doubling as a children’s charity and focusing on promoting the welfare of a specific group of children was not only very alien to them, it was also deemed unnecessary. That was our main challenge – convincing these people of the need to address specific issues in specific communities to safeguard the children in those communities. It took a little while to make some in-road. During this period, things were extremely difficult for us. Even paying our phone bills was a huge problem. We did not have any paid members of staff, we were all volunteers. Some of the members on our board couldn’t reconcile the fact that our government support and strong media profile were not adequate to attract the resources to build the work.
Obstacles and challenges no doubt still exist as in all forward-thinking ventures. What keeps you going?
I have a very strong conviction in our work at AFRUCA. I know that our work has helped to change many lives for the better. I know a lot of children have been safeguarded, either directly or indirectly through our work at AFRUCA. That is what keeps me going – the knowledge that we are here for the betterment of vulnerable, disadvantaged and voiceless children. In particular, issues like child trafficking and exploitation within our community is something people are not keen to talk about. However, we have worked hard to keep it firmly on the agenda, to ensure that everyone becomes aware of this major problem and can do their best to help.
I’m a natural optimist. I started AFRUCA because I was very convinced that there was a gap that could be met and that with my policy background, I could help build an organisation that would help achieve change. So despite all the challenges and obstacles, I kept going because of my personal convictions.
You have worked in other areas before this life-impacting project. Give a brief insight into what you did and at what stage did you realise the need to fulfil your aspirations for African children?
I graduated with a Bachelors degree in French and Education from the University of Benin in 1989 without any plans whatsoever to become a teacher! I returned to live in the UK in 1990 immediately after. I started my career in the UK Civil Service and worked in a number of government departments. In 1997, I graduated with a Masters in Urban Policy from the University of North London. I chose to follow this career path because of ongoing issues in the UK at that time around poverty, social deprivation and exclusion among blacks and ethnic minorities in the UK. However, I was transferred to the Cabinet Office to work on Competitiveness Policy. Shortly after in 1997, there was a change in government with the Labour Party capturing power at the centre and my section was transferred to the Department for Trade and Industry to work on enterprise policy. This later encompassed work on small business policy. My experiences working as a policy advisor in various capacities and in different areas of government helped to strengthen my expertise and knowledge of the policy making process. I also began to research development and small business policy in African countries at that time and realised I had a lot to offer from my knowledge and skills gained working in government, so I established DMA Consulting in 1999. There was indeed a lot of positive progress for me at that time and I was delivering small business related projects in collaboration with other well qualified Nigerians. The attempt to establish the first ever Nigerian Venture Capital Exchange was part of this. Unfortunately, this did not take off as planned for various reasons which I will not go into here.
However, while all this was ongoing, the issues I mentioned earlier regarding the growing spate of child abuse and bullying in the UK were at a head. I had always wanted to do something with children, but this was never anything serious. But at this time, it became a burning desire. It was possibly because of the image of Victoria Climbie stuck in my head as a child tortured to death as well as that of Damilola Taylor who was equally bullied to death. So this was quite an interesting but confusing period of my life because I had just started a business which was still developing and which had a lot of potential. In the end I realised that even though there was a lot of income to be derived from running a profitable consultancy, my heart was really in making changes happen for children and for the community. In the end, I had to make that choice and run with it. I stopped work at DMA Consulting, quit my civil service career and focused exclusively on AFRUCA. It was a leap of faith because there was no income coming in for me to earn a salary or any form of income and this was actually the case for the following 5 years. However, what started as a small desire to help inevitably became a strong platform for the betterment of African children in the UK, so it was a well made choice.
What are your major achievements over the years?
My achievements are really AFRUCA’s achievements and the organisation has developed a high profile, over the years, as the premier organisation promoting the welfare of African children in the UK. Our main achievement, I believe, is the strong campaigning and awareness-raising about the growing problem of the trafficking of African children to the UK. At the time, when we started highlighting this issue publicly, there was some hostility from certain members of the community and a general lack of interest and unwillingness on the part of relevant government agencies to act. Non mainstream issues affecting non white children were not usually considered a priority for government. Now we derive a lot of support from Africans in the UK who explicitly support our work and either call, email or write us to tell us how proud they are of our work. Most of the government agencies working with children preferred to deal with the big, well established “mainstream” organisations instead of consulting with small organisations like AFRUCA. However, that has changed a lot in recent years. I believe we have been able to convince them that not only are we very committed to our work, we are keen to work with them to achieve their policy and service delivery objectives to safeguard all children in the country. Now, across the UK, from Glasgow to London to Manchester, we work in close collaboration with the relevant local agencies who consult us on various issues – either at the policy level or on specific cases or to deliver training on improving their service delivery to African children and families. We run regular conferences and training programmes for practitioners across the country and these events are always over-subscribed. It is also an interesting time for us because we’ve just received a five-year grant to run training in child protection for African parents across London. This is on the back of the fact that a lot of African children were ending up in care, sometimes permanently. We felt it was necessary to work directly with parents so that they can become more knowledgeable about the requirements of the government in terms of keeping children safe from harm and abuse. We have also been successful in engaging policy-makers at the national level to input into children’s policy and this has really helped with influencing the policy-making process for the betterment of our children. In a nutshell, we have been successful on those five levels in achieving positive outcomes for our children right across the country. However, there is still a lot of work to be done. Also, we are now beginning to expand our work to African countries working in partnership with others and are now looking to establish a regional office shortly.
Who are your collaborative/supporting partners and how have these impacted upon the mission so far?
When I started AFRUCA, I wanted to use my background expertise in policy development to enable positive changes for African children in the UK. I knew no major positive changes would happen if we were unable to influence the policy making process. For this reason, our main focus was and is still in developing strong working relationships with key government agencies responsible for children’s issues across the country. Our key partner – The Department for Education and Skills have overall responsibilities for children’s issues in the UK. They are also our main funding organisation and we receive our core grant from them. Aside the financial support, we are able to input into their work through high level lobbying and advocacy. This has meant us acting as a bridge between the community and government, sharing information and knowledge about what works in achieving better outcomes for African children.
We also have a strong working relationship with the London Metropolitan Police Service and they have provided financial support for our work in different ways. Since they have responsibility for crime prevention, our work on child abuse prevention is of great interest to them. We have collaborated on a number of anti-child abuse campaigns in the past, including a recent one on Female Genital Mutilation.
Local Authorities have responsibility for child safeguarding in their areas. Again, we have developed strong partnerships with agencies across London and in Manchester, Birmingham and Newcastle, some of the UK’s largest cities with a high population of Africans. They consult us when developing protocols for their practitioners on working with ethnic minority children in their areas. Some of them have also supported us financially to organise training events and other local projects.
Of course we also have a number of other funders and private sector supporters and this has really helped our work. One of our main private sector supporters is an international law firm who have shown real interest in our work and have assisted us in many ways. We also collaborate with other children’s charities and other African organisations to run specific campaigns. So while it took us a while to gain recognition and support, the perseverance has paid off because we are now regarded nation-wide as a leading charity working for children. Now the work is a little bit easier.
What immediate and long-term goals/plans do you want to actualise in promoting the rights and welfare of children?
Our vision as an organisation is to see a world in which the gross abuse of African children will become a thing of the past. This means that generally speaking, we will continue to do what we do until changes happen. Our campaigns against child trafficking, child abuse in general, are ongoing and are long term. This is recognised in our strategic plan for the next five years.
However, one key area of work that requires urgent attention, in our viewpoint, is in raising awareness about the plight of children who are willy-nilly branded as witches. It is quite disconcerting to see what people do to children even here in the UK, because someone thinks they are a witch. Disabled children, orphans, children living away from home, all these vulnerable children are so prone to abuse and harm from abusers who brand them as witches so they could further their abusive acts. In my view, this is one area of work that needs to be urgently addressed. This is why we have launched a campaign for the government to consider strengthening UK laws to criminalise branding children as witches. It cannot be justified in any way or form. We are lobbying MPs and Peers and others to consider this new “witchcraft abuse” in the UK to protect children. This is a long term project, although it is only just starting. However, it will continue for as long as is necessary.
As I said earlier, we also want to take our work to Africa, employing the same strategy and approach. I am really keen for AFRUCA to develop very strongly in Nigeria where there are so many children and so many forms of child abuse and nothing concrete seem to be happening to address these. So it is very likely that our regional as well as a country office will be established in Nigeria in the very near future and we do look forward to working with different governments, state, federal, as well as other NGOs to make this happen.
Abuse and deprivation of rights and welfare have often been misconstrued as discipline, especially in the cultural context of most African communities. How would you clarify this to an average parent/guardian?
This is an issue that a lot of our people have raised with us and to be sincere, I do empathise with some of them because they are bringing up children in what can be termed a difficult environment here in the UK. However, this should not be an excuse for abusing and exploiting children. Recently, a Nigerian professor was convicted of gross child abuse in the US. He was categorical in stating this was part of his culture to discipline his children whatever way he deemed fit. Our parents always resort to “culture” when children have been made to undergo extreme forms of abuse. Our stance is that any culture that abuses, harms and exploits children is no culture. It is one that must be done away with. In a lot of cases, beatings and excessive physical punishments do not work. It can effect a temporary control over the child, but on the long term, it does not change behaviour. At secondary school, I saw a lot of this where parents come to school to discipline their children in front of the whole assembly, only for the children to become 100 times worse than before. Children want to be shown love by their parents, want their parents to understand them and their problems but this is not always the case. A lot of African parents do not have a close relationship with their children and this will affect those children in future. A lot of children have closer relationships with the whip than their parents. In the UK, the Metropolitan Police state that majority of African children going into care are removed from their parents due to excessive punishment and physical abuse. A lot of our parents are also being prosecuted for excessive physical abuse. Practices like Female Genital Mutilation where girls are mutilated in the name of culture need to be done away with. Who benefits from these practices? Looking at the catalogue of suffering and health problems that comes with FGM, surely it cannot be the girls?
In addition, the practice of using children as domestic servants is quite rampant among Nigerians in the UK. We have come across cases of children whose future have been blighted through suffering, abuse and exploitation at the hands of relatives who are supposed to be looking after them, but who have turned them to slaves. I often say to such people, “how would you feel if this was your own child?” We need to work hard to change such horrible practices, raise awareness of the consequences of abuse on children so people can see it is just not right. It seems we are doing everything to destroy our children, their psyche, and their future. At AFRUCA, we feel this issue needs to be tackled within our community in this country as a matter of urgency. This is why we applied for a grant from the Big Lottery to let us develop and run a training programme for African parents in London to help improve parenting skills and work to develop alternative and more positive ways of bringing up children. I’m happy to say we got the grant and the programme will commence shortly. I really do hope we are able to use this as an opportunity to help make life better for our children in London.
What is your main message to the African community vis a vis the promotion of rights and welfare of children?
Our children are our future. We must work together to protect them from abuse and harm. There are too many issues, it seems like we are waging a war against our children! For us to survive and develop as a continent, we must change our negative practices towards our children. We must focus more on positive nurturing of children. Most importantly, everyone has a role to play in safeguarding children – pastors, imams, parents, uncles, aunties, politicians, government workers, everyone. This is why we appeal to members of the community in the UK that when they see children being exploited and abused, they shouldn’t keep quiet because that child’s life could depend on them. In a number of cases where children have ended up seriously hurt or even killed, there were people who knew what was going on and did nothing. These people will have this on their conscience as having failed a child who needed their help.
How would you like other Africans and organisations to contribute or join in this campaign to promote your mission?
I think it is right to say we are all in this together. We all need to collectively fight for our children. We need a concerted effort to ensure our children are protected from abuse and harm and we do call on all Africans, to support our work in whatever way. Even just coming to the rescue of a child in need of help is supportive (of) our work. If people want to join us, volunteer their time, give us a donation, they are welcome to do so. There is a lot to do. You can give your time to raise awareness in your community, you can organise events for us to come and talk to your friends, congregation and communities about this issue. You can support our work as an organisation, having a link from your website to ours to help propagate this work. There is so much you can do to help and that would really be appreciated. Those who want to find out more about our work and how they can help can visit our website at www.afruca.org
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