Safeguarding Black African Children in the UK

I have had the privilege of facilitating training to predominantly Black African people of different faiths and denominations across the UK and in Europe. I have spoken in mosques, madrassahs, churches, schools, conferences and even libraries. The recurring theme for most of the sessions is on safeguarding Black African children and young people within the home, school, place of worship and the community. As I review my activities for the last 760 days, I realised that I have delivered 67 sessions in 4 countries including the UK, trained 485 children, 1000 parents, 227 faith leaders and 731 practitioners. I have been opportune to train people from diverse ethnic origins including Africa, the Caribbean, Asia and Europe.

I have learnt a lot as I hop from one workshop to another. I have seen sceptics become ‘born-again’ after sessions and this is evidenced by the pre and post workshop evaluation. I have listened to genuine concerns shared by parents and front line statutory agency workers. I have heard Black African parents complaining about being ‘powerless’ as the child protection system seems to give more power to the children. I will not forget easily when a middle-aged man in Southampton asked, ‘what can you do as a parent if your son is beating you?’. The question was unsettling, but it underlines the diverse and complex circumstances within our community and the need to be open minded, as one size does not fit all. I have trained professionals too who have wondered aloud why some African cultural practices are so barbaric and cruel.

Culture is fluid and could be analogous, a cursory look at history underscores this fact. Corporal punishment was abolished in UK state schools by the Education Act (Section 48) in 1986, when teachers’ immunity from prosecution for assault was removed. However, corporal punishment continued in private schools until 1999 when it was finally abolished and Section 58 of the Children Act 2004 still allows parent to use ’reasonable chastisement’ to control their children’s behaviour if they do not use an implement or leave a mark on the child’s body. Most newly arrived migrants to the UK either learn about the child protection laws through hearsay from other migrants or when their children are taken by social workers. These are families coming to the UK from countries where it is permissive to physically chastise a child.

It is common knowledge that Black Africans even in diaspora exhibits a strong connection to their culture and religion, and this greatly influences their decision-making process and actions especially in how they bring up their children. There could be a tendency towards submission to fatalism, a belief that no occurrence happens by chance or coincidence, that is, every occurrence at the earthly realm do have a spiritual explanation or connection to destiny. Generations of people across cultures have held at different epochs certain beliefs or superstitions, as you will still find people in England who ascribe 7 years of bad luck if you break a mirror and others who belief that walking under a ladder or the number 13 is synonymous with bad luck. Wear your cultural lenses next time you see an African parent refusing to allow their children to take part in Halloween as they see it as a celebration of witchcraft or when they recoil at the sight of a black cat.

In the last few years in the UK, abuse related to spirit possession or witchcraft is growing. Children have been emotionally abused by being labelled as witches or possessing evil spirits and others have suffered grievous bodily harm in the process of exorcism through deliverance. Historically, spirit possession or witchcraft are not strange concepts in England as Henry VIII enacted the Witchcraft Act of 1542 which resulted in the execution of individuals perceived to be witches. Although, the persecution of witches was repealed by the 1736 Witchcraft Act replacing penalties for witchcraft with pretence of witchcraft, this was not expunged until 1951 by the Fraudulent Mediums Act. Interestingly, even after the revocation in 1736 there were two separate cases which led to the execution of Helen Duncan and Jane Rebecca Yorke in 1944. Even now in England there is a rise in paganism, mediums and witchcraft (Wicca). A child growing up in Nigeria will internalise the fear of Juju, witchcraft, sorcery and evil spirits by being told at an early age that ‘ojuju’ (the masquerade) will catch them if they are naughty, frightened of being possessed by evil spirits if they eat in their dreams and traumatised by graphic scenes from Nollywood movies.

Over the years, I have drawn so much knowledge from participants as they live in the real world and share first hand experiences. As stakeholders we all have critical roles to play in protecting children. Beliefs, culture and religion cannot be used as camouflages to validate harmful cultural practices that result in children being abused. Most parents have the best interest of their children at heart and what they need is timely support in building their parental capacity and better understanding of the law. Children are better nurtured at home and not within children social care. The need for early help and community engagement cannot be over-emphasised. As practitioners we need to constantly reflect on our practice, accept the limits of our knowledge, be objective and acquire cultural intelligence.