After 10 years working in the British civil service across different government departments and in different policy posts, including urban regeneration, competitiveness, small business development, youth entrepreneurship and enterprise policies, Debbie Ariyo (DA) left her job to start AFRUCA – Africans Unite Against Child Abuse. She has been a prominent advocate for the rights of children, work that has won her recognition and respect. The Africa Diaspora Magazine (ADM) caught up with her to find out more about her work.
ADM: First, please tell us about yourself; who is Debbie Ariyo and where were you born?
DA: I am a British-Nigerian born in the UK and raised in Nigeria. My family left the UK in the 1970s and I lived in Nigeria till the age of 21 before returning to the UK, so I’ve practically spent my life equally in both countries. I am currently the CEO of AFRUCA, a charity that I founded in 2001. The organisation focuses on the protection of children and provides services to meet their safeguarding needs. Our work is targeted at Black African children, working with their families, communities and others.
ADM: Family and community impart abiding lessons and principles that usually become key pillars in our lives as adults; what would you say those were, for you?
DA: The role of the family is to help nurture a well rounded, well adjusted child. It is also to ensure the safety of children. Abuse begets abuse, so a child who suffers abuse will end up abusing others. The cycle of abuse is the reason we have so many maladjusted people in the community. For me, it is essential that everyone in our community understands what it means to abuse children, the long-term impact of abuse on a child and to gain the skills to prevent abuse to children. If we can reduce child abuse, we will have more flourishing, better adjusted adults in our community.
ADM: When and why did you receive your OBE and what did it mean?
DA: I was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 2011 for my work with children and families. It was a real honour to have my work recognised at such a very high level. I have focused less on the “empire” bit and appreciated more the importance of the honour from the Queen. You never know who is watching you, who is taking note of your work so my motto that “anything worth doing at all is worth doing well” has really paid off.
ADM: Tell us about Afruca and its programmes.
DA: AFRUCA delivers a range of services across England to help meet the needs of children who have experienced different forms of abuses and exploitation. We provide
therapeutic support to children, sometimes their parents to help their process of healing. We support young people who have experienced human trafficking and exploitation, helping them to live independent lives. We work with Children’s Services to provide one-to-one parenting support to parents where children have been removed and put into care – and we have a lot of that going on. We also run a lot of community child protection education programmes to help propagate the message of child protection so more people can understand what it means to protect a child from abuse and hence help to reduce its occurrence in our community. We are also working in selected African countries, so we are developing partnerships in Sierra Leone in the aftermath of the Mudslides and Ebola to help address child trafficking which is quite prevalent in the country.
We are trying to replicate our work in England in other European countries and have partners in Germany and Finland where we are working with practitioners who work with
newly arrived African families. Our work is quite broad – but we haven’t even scratched the surface of what needs to be done to help safeguard as many African children as possible, so there is a lot more work to do.
ADM: What led you to start the charity and what did you intend to achieve through it?
DA: I started AFRUCA because I was really concerned about the rise in the number of cases of child abuse involving African children in England and I resolved to do something to help. This was in 2001 when we started as an advocacy organisation. The aim then was to work with parents, practitioners and the community to help protect children from abuse and that has not changed at all. We are still focused on child protection. The idea was that if we could work with all the different groups that come into contact with children, we could help to build a wall of protection so that less children experience abuse. Our work and activities – almost 17 years later, are still geared towards achieving this core aim.
ADM: The early years are usually fraught with challenges how did you overcome the frustrations of teething problems and persevere?
DA: The early years of AFRUCA were very difficult. We faced acceptance issues within the community as there were people who felt we were washing their dirty linen in public. There were some faith groups that felt we were castigating their practices. Outside the community, there were those who felt “oh, this is another African NGO set out to make money”. So, it was really difficult. But I was very resolved in what I wanted to achieve because I strongly believed I could make it work. My methodology was to set out to prove people wrong about our perceived intentions, that we are with the community, but we must protect our children from abuse. The second was to gain as many new skills as possible to ensure the charity could do its work effectively. So of course, you have all the passion, but you need more than passion to run a charity, you need a whole new repertoire of skills like how to run a business, how to raise funds and so on.
ADM: What can we expect from the charity in the next few years, some new projects or expansion plans perhaps?
DA: In the next few years, we would like to have expanded our work to other European countries, that is, have presence in other countries. The issues that we are dealing with in the UK occur in wider Europe. We are already working in some countries, but a lot more still needs to be done. We also want to enhance the work we are doing in Africa, in countries like Sierra Leone and others where there are a multitude of issues affecting children. We would like to help transfer the knowledge and skills we have gained from working in the UK to other African countries, so we are going to be organising many training events for professionals on the continent, of course in partnership with local agencies. There is a lot to do in the coming years, so watch this space!
ADM: You are an advocate of the African Child, do you see progress from a global perspective on the advancement of the protection of children’s rights?
DA: I believe a lot has been achieved in recent years in child protection, but a lot more needs to be done. Due to mainly economic reasons, the situation in Africa is becoming intolerable for children. There are growing cases of extreme abuse in many countries like child marriage, young Africans being sold as slaves in Libya and other places, and the falling education standards, which mean a blighted future for many children. A lot more needs to happen, and countries need to be supported to make decisions in the best interests of their children. In many cases that is not the case. Even in the UK here, we are seeing more cases of children killing children – gun and knife crimes escalating. So, we do have a lot of work to do beyond organising international conferences and forums. We need to act and act fast otherwise the next generation of Africans will suffer tremendously, and it would be because we have failed to act in our generation.
ADM: Have you had any support from the UK government or the mainstream British organisations and if so, how have they helped?
DA: Definitely. We have received very good support for our work from the UK government and this has really helped our work to grow. We have received different tranches of funding for our work. A good example is our Children’s Champions programme where we received a grant for three years or so to recruit and train African volunteers so they could go out into their own community to run child protection training courses. We were able to train about 200 people with each person training on average another 20. So, we made a lot of inroad there. We have also received support from the Home Office to recruit psychotherapists to provide mental health support to victims of trafficking to help
their healing process. Over three years we organised a series of Summits on African Children in London attracting almost 1000 in total and this really helped to educate people about children’s issues. The government’s support for our work has been invaluable.
ADM: You’re an active member of the African diaspora community in the UK; what would your advice to the community be for it to become more empowered and as effective agents of development in Africa?
DA: I believe the African diaspora in the UK needs to become more effective at capitalising on its uniqueness to create positive changes – here in the UK but also in Africa. We are a very informed and powerful community. We should start working together, bringing on board the range of expertise we have to influence change in the best interests of our community, not working in silos but as one unit. We have seen this happen with other ethnic groups. For example, we should be able to create a single, powerful voice to compel government to act in relation to gun and knife crime. The response so far has been piecemeal because there are too many groups doing too many things, competing for attention. Other communities would have achieved better results because they do work more in partnerships, rather than unilaterally.
ADM: With your busy schedule, do you find time for hobbies? How do you relax when you’re not working?
DA: I do find time to rest. It is essential to recharge the batteries. I like to read, and I’ve started to do a bit of gardening. I hope to do more of that because I find it very therapeutic. It’s very relaxing being outside doing non-work things.