The offices of (AFRUCA) Africans Unite Against Child Abuse, are in an unassuming part of East London, which houses other Africa-related charities, including Justice Africa; the small team, alongside their CEO, Debbie Ariyo OBE, have been working to highlight the issue of child abuse in African communities in London from this small office since May 2001.
Initially their work was concentrated in London, but increasingly,Debbie Ariyo says her work takes her to places she never thought they would like Stoke-on-Trent and Yorkshire.
Over the past 10 years, AFRUCA’s work has increased in stature, and she’s been recognized for her work through a number of awards, including an OBE in 2011.
Given the prevalence of corporal punishment amongst African parents, I ask Ariyo whether there is a fine line between discipline and child abuse. Ariyo says, ‘the bottom line is that AFRUCA is a children’s charity, and believe beating children doesn’t work; for many parents it involves getting in trouble with the law; the UK and Europe are very different environments [in terms of children and discipline] from places like Nigeria’.
The difference in many cases means parents discipline children in a way they may have been accustomed to in Africa, but which in the UK lands them on the wrong side of the law. Yet even in Africa, Ariyo says, ‘there are organizations working to stop parents from hitting their children.
Physical punishment, Ariyo emphasizes ‘is a legacy of colonialism, when colonialism ended, we just continued doing it’. And the challenges cut across class lines; Ariyo gives the example of a high-flying UK-Based Nigerian lawyer who ‘locked her daughter in a room and poured pepper into her private parts as a punishment for stealing from her purse.’
Notwithstanding this kind of hair-raising example, Ariyo says the fact is that most children are safe in their homes, and working with the community is the approach of her organization; trying to avoid as much as possible separating families or removing children from their homes because the effects are invariably devastating for children and their parents.
AFRUCA runs different programmes for helping families, and works with organizations, particularly churches, because many parents justify their methods by referencing cultural or religious values. ‘Spare the Rod and spoil the child is one she hears often. AFRUCA works with churches to help them understand how to change their views and practice so as not to harm children.
They say they’ve reached over 2, 000 parents in the course of their work. Although Ariyo hesitates to criticize church groups, she says that in most cases and AFRUCA deals with about 12 cases a year –they are usually linked to a particular church; not all churches do these things and it’s important she stresses, to distinguish between churches that do and churches that don’t.
Despite that nuanced approach, AFRUCA’s ongoing campaign for the UK government to make calling children witches illegal, hasn’t got much support from faith groups, because the idea of witches is biblically sanctioned. Church groups will support their work on harm-prevention for children but won’t support a ban on calling children witches, many citing passages from Exodus that instruct ‘ do not suffer a witch to live’.
AFRUCA continues to pressure the government to take the stigma and superstitions around ‘witchcraft’ seriously, and make them understand that it is not just a ‘harry potter’ issue; the implications for accused children is that they are stigmatized for life. It’s not just an African issue though, Ariyo points to Thailand, where parents bury children in sand, in the idea that the sand sucks out the evil spirits from them.
Increasingly, AFRUCA’s focus has turned to engaging the wider African Diaspora and practitioners in the public sector. The organization runs programmes to educate and empower the community to prevent abuse, and address the underlying issues that contribute to children experiencing abuse.
Dele Meiji Fatunla
AFRUCA’s workshop on ‘Child Abuse linked to a Belief in Witchcraft and Juju’ takes place on March 27th in London