Tireless work for children

Gary and Naomi Foxcroft with some of the children they helped in Nigeria.
Gary and Naomi Foxcroft with some of the children they helped in Nigeria.

Gary Foxcroft has faced death threats, intimidation, libel suits and media slurs during his campaign to end the persecution of children in Africa.

Despite this, Stepping Stones Nigeria (SSN), the Lancaster-based charity that he co-founded with his wife, Naomi, has helped more than 400,000 children to read and write, trained more than 7,000 teachers and catapulted the issue of so called “child witches” into the global consciousness.

Gary , who lives in Scotforth, with Naomi and their two children, is now considered a global expert in the field of child persecution and has supported the rescue and rehabilitation of hundreds of victims of witchcraft accusations, rape, trafficking and other forms of child abuse.

After eight years at the helm of the charity, Gary has now stepped down as its director to launch a global project called the Witchcraft and Human Rights Information Network (WHRIN) and write a book about his experiences.

He said: “The new organisation is a continuation of SSN’s work in many ways but is also quite different. First of all it’s not a charity, it’s a social enterprise and it’s going to be much more UK focused, as there is a significant problem of people being accused of witchcraft and abuse here and, indeed around the world.

“We will be offering training as well as carrying out advocacy, and research activities.

“It was launched on the last day of 2012 to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the hangings of the Lancashire Witches.

“In 400 years’ time, the hope is there will be no need for WHRIN to exist, but at the moment there’s a very obvious need for an organisation like this – it’s a big problem in places like India, Papua New Guinea and many parts of Africa.

“One of the main challenges is that there is a lack of awareness of these issues and without this it is difficult to find solutions to ongoing human rights abuses.

“Currently I’m working with various organisations to develop reports for different countries underlining the scale of the problem and developing a training programme for front line practitioners in the UK.”

The organisation’s mission statement is to “Promote awareness and understanding of human rights violations that are committed around the world due to the belief in witchcraft.

“We strive to help communities around the world access information and find solutions to complex problems in order to ensure that further human rights abuses do not take place,” Gary said.

Gary is still very much involved as an ambassador for Stepping Stones Nigeria, and while the charity seeks to secure a new director, Naomi has stepped into the post temporarily.

“One of the things SSN is doing is taking a more long term approach to dealing with the problems,” Gary explained.

“Until children can read and write, they’re not going to know what their rights are, and the proliferation of superstitious beliefs is going to prevail, and then there’s still lots of advocacy work, and projects with street children.”

Gary and Naomi set up the charity in 2005, after Gary visited the Niger Delta as part of a research project he was doing at Lancaster University , and seeing the nightmare situation many children faced there.

The couple with help from fundraising activities and donations from Lancastrians, spent 2006 in Nigeria building and resourcing the Stepping Stones Model School, which still provides the best education in the area for over 200 children, many of whom are orphans.

Through its work, SSN also successfully lobbied the government of Akwa Ibom State in Nigeria to enact the Child Rights Act and criminalise acts of branding children as witches, which often left them homeless, shunned by their community, and in more extreme cases, horrifically assaulted.

Gary has also made presentations and submitted reports to various UN bodies in Geneva, placing the issue of witchcraft accusations against children directly on the agenda of these UN bodies.

Massive international awareness of the issue has also been raised via documentaries including Channel 4’s Dispatches programmes.

Gary added: “Witchcraft accusations against children in Nigeria is a complex problem and will not be solved overnight. SSN remains committed to fighting for the rights of such children.

“We’ve been on the receiving end of a brutal campaign of intimidation, from the government and some powerful pastors, but it hasn’t stopped the charity from still working there.”

“I would like to express my thanks to everyone in Lancaster for all the support they have offered the charity over the years and hope this support may continue. The support and encouragement we have recieved has been incredible and I will always be grateful for this. Thanks also to Lancaster Royal Grammar School and all the other organisations and individuals who have raised important funds for us.

“Also Green Close Studios, Litfest, Hilli McManus, Global Link, Lancaster University and everyone else who made the Lancashire Witches 400th anniversary such a great success.

“Finally I would particularly like to thank Anthony Finnerty, co-chair of trustees (at SSN), who has been an incredible supporter of the charity.”

Whilst WHRIN is being developed, and global links are created, SSN is still working hard to bring about change in Africa, and is constantly looking for new community fundraisers to work with them, have some fun and make this a reality.

They would love you to contact them, telephone 01524 849158 or email l.atkinson@steppingstonesnigeria.org.