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
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
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
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.