Is Operation Christmas Child's shoebox campaign just a propaganda tool for Christianity?

Operation Chrismas Child asks children to "experience God's love through the power of simple shoe box gifts". But they are to charity what Femen are to feminism: superior, islamophobic, and seemingly unresponsive to the needs of those they claim to help.

Much as I’m loathe to conform to working mummy stereotypes I still have days when I’ve stepped straight out of an Allison Pearson novel. I arrive at the school gates, puffed up with pride that I’ve got the kids there at all, when I suddenly notice that everyone else’s child is dressed for World Book Day, or every other mother is carrying a PTA bake sale cake, or the teacher is collecting money for next week’s trip and no, I can’t pay by Visa. Once again, Mummy has messed up. Of course, I blame my entirely imaginary high-powered career and the fact that a woman can’t have it all (the suggestion that Mummy is just disorganised and needs a kick up the arse won’t cut it). Next time, though, it’s going to be different.

For the first time ever I am prepared for the upcoming school event. I know all about Shoebox Day. I’ve already got it scribbled on the calendar, having found the Operation Christmas Child leaflet stuffed into my eldest child’s book bag. In two weeks’ time my sons will be just like their classmates, each arriving at school with a Christmas shoebox to be given to “a poor child in Africa” (I tell my children it won’t necessarily be Africa and that not every child who lives there is poor. “Don’t be silly,” says my six-year-old. After all, he’s watched Comic Relief).

Of course, I must remember not to get so hung up on the day itself that I forget to purchase the gifts to put in said shoebox. These won’t just be any old gifts, either. There may be socks, and possibly a cuddly toy, and perhaps even a mini Connect Four. Most impressive of all, though, is the fact that my children will be giving the gift of Christ’s love (it’s amazing what you can fit in a Start-rite box these days).

At first glance Operation Christmas Child seems simply delightful. Christmas! Children! Toys! Sharing! Even if, like me, you’re flicking through the leaflet thinking “I wish they didn’t do gender segregated toy labels” and “isn’t this all rather patronising?” it feels churlish to criticise. Sure, world poverty won’t be eradicated by you stuffing Lego into a cardboard box, but this is for the children. What kind of smug liberal begrudges children a little Christmas cheer? What kind of privileged arse puts their precious principles ahead of a poor child’s laughter on Christmas day? It seems incredibly self-indulgent to take issue with a charity. However, at the risk of looking like a cross between the Modern Parents and Ebenezer Scrooge, the more I read about Operation Christmas Child, the more I find myself making an exception. 

Since 1995 Operation Christmas Child has been run by the evangelical organisation Samaritan’s Purse. You provide the shoe boxes and toys, and they make the deliveries. Oh, their church partners might just happen to drop in “a little booklet of Bible stories” or even “invite children receiving shoeboxes to join a discipleship course called The Greatest Journey.” The charity’s website boasts of bringing “the hope of Jesus Christ into the lives of over 100 million underprivileged children.” This might not sound too bad until you learn that Samaritan’s Purse is run by Rev Franklin Graham, a man who has called Islam “a very wicked and evil religion”. OCC targets countries with large Muslim populations, with an aim to convert (they also adopt these tactics with Hindu communities). My children think they are sending toys who children who have none; what they’re actually doing is sending faith to children whose own beliefs are deemed not to measure up.    

My eldest child believes in God, although he also believes in Star Wars (he doesn’t, however, believe in the city of Birmingham, but that’s another story). I would find it hard to explain to him what I find wrong with OCC. Initially I thought it was merely the kind of casual, well-intentioned cultural imperialism you find in other western charity efforts such as Band Aid’s "Do they know it’s Christmas?", but it’s worse than that. Operation Chrismas Child are to charity what Femen are to feminism: superior, islamophobic, seemingly unresponsive to the needs of those they claim to help (although deep down, I suspect some members of Femen do care about feminism; I’m less sure anyone leading OCC really gives a toss about toys).

In 2003 the Guardian’s Giles Fraser launched a brilliant attack on OCC, highlighting the narcissism that lies at the heart of this approach to giving:

Schools and churches that are getting their children involved in Operation Christmas Child need to be aware of the agenda their participation is helping to promote. There is, of course, a huge emotional hit in wrapping up a shoebox for a Christmas child. But if we are to teach our children properly about giving, we must wean them off the feel-good factor.

I think he’s absolutely right. And yet ten years on I’m one of the many parents who’s gone ahead and written “Shoebox Day” on the calendar. I am hoping I can think of some clever ruse between now and then. Perhaps I shall mark our box “for the local children’s hospice” (though I’ve checked and it turns out they want money, not trinkets self-indulgently chosen by me and my children in order to give ourselves a warm feeling inside). Alternatively, I can always pretend to be Useless Mummy again. “The Shoebox? Argh! I forgot!” Then I’ll make it up to them by investing in a more ethical gift. See, I can be sneaky and manipulative, too, although not half as manipulative as those who exploit children to spread their prejudice.


At first glance Operation Christmas Child seems simply delightful. Look closer, and it's not all it seems. Photo: Getty

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

Credit: Getty
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“Grooming rings are the biggest recruiter for the far right”: Rochdale and Telford prosecutor

Senior lawyer Nazir Afzal warns the government, and communities implicated in street grooming, to do more – or the situation will get worse.

Nazir Afzal, the former chief prosecutor who led prosecutions against a child sex abuse ring in Telford, and oversaw similar street grooming cases in Rochdale, tells Anoosh Chakelian why these crimes go under the radar, and how to tackle them.

How widespread are these street grooming cases?

My involvement started with Operation Span, which is the Rochdale prosecution, in 2011. And prior to that, when I was in London as chief prosecutor, I was aware it was an issue bubbling but wasn’t getting any attention.

Obviously we’ve now got Telford, Newcastle, Peterborough, Sheffield, Rotherham, Oxford, Bristol. If anybody watched the BBC’s film Three Girls, at the very end, they list I think 16 towns and cities where prosecution had taken place.

We know that it is extraordinarily widespread. Wherever you look, if you turn over the stone, you’ll find this kind of behaviour. 

What do each of these cases have in common?

What we discovered, ten years ago nearly, were groups of men working invariably in the night-time economy, either in taxi services or takeaways or that kind of business, hiding amongst whom were these predators. They’re not gangs in the way organised crime gangs are. They’re very loose networks.

There are vulnerable young girls in so many parts of this country, who nobody else seems to care about. And what these victims need is warmth, transport, mind-numbing substances, food. And where are they going to find that? You’re invariably going to find that in the night-time economy.

I used to describe them as easy prey for evil men. They’re easy to identify, and what tends to happen is that once they’ve identified one victim, through her networks very often they’ll find others.

These men are just taking advantage of the dysfunctional nature of children’s services and young people’s services that have existed now for some time. If anything, it’s got worse, because while there is tremendous learning, the resources have been reduced.

So really good practices – like one council would have a van that would go round fast food premises in the evening to identify young girls at risk and talk to them – are cancelled because they don’t have the money to do it anymore.

People work in silence. Information was available and wasn’t shared. That style of working is part of the problem. So time and again, people are just keeping things to themselves. It’s a lack of competence on their part. It’s competence, it’s not conspiracy. Easier to blame a conspiracy than say “you were rubbish at your job”. And that is constantly something that I have come across.

The victims don’t even see themselves as victims very often. Because of the poverty of relationship education and sex education in schools, these men make them believe that they love them. I remember in the Rochdale case, one of the girls kept calling one of the defendants throughout the trial her “boyfriend”. She doesn’t know any different; nobody has taught her what’s a good relationship, what’s a bad relationship.

Time and time again, survivors have the answers. What the authorities should be doing is listening to their local survivors, and building their response and their interventions on what the survivors tell them: “This is a journey I took, this is where you could’ve intervened. This is where you could’ve prevented my abuse or somebody else’s abuse.”

There are some very, very courageous, extraordinarily strong women now more than willing to share their experiences. And we do so little of that [talking to them].

How can the situation be improved for victims and potential victims?

A lot of these victims have criminal records as a result of behaviours they were made to do – we should be erasing those criminal records. That’s the way we can rehabilitate them. I think victims need compensation for what they’ve been through. And they also need lifelong support, and that’s not being produced.

Taxi drivers in Coventry are trained in local signs of abuse; it’s part of their licensing arrangement and I work with them actually on delivering that. Why is that not happening everywhere else in the country? Why are we not licensing and training takeaway establishments in the same way?

I discovered recently that in Newcastle, they’re delivering this kind of training. Sadly, it’s voluntary. The people you need to engage with are not coming. So unless you have mandatory training for people working in the night-time economy, it’s not going to happen.

Additionally in the hotel trade, one or two large chains are doing some good work in identifying young people at risk, and sharing intelligence. Why is that not everywhere? We know that predators use cheap hotels and places like that for the abuse they carry out.

The intelligence is there, it’s just not being used. And we’re not using community intelligence either. The vast majority of victims in this type of sex offending are white girls. There are Asian girl victims too.

When I prosecuted the Rochdale gang, immediately afterwards, I prosecuted the ringleader again for his abuse of a girl of the same ethnicity as him. That didn’t get any publicity and he got 21 years for that. So there are victims from the Asian community but because of issues such as honour, shame, and the fact that very often they’re told by their families that it’s “your fault”, they’re not coming forward.

So we need to understand that there are victims out there who are even less likely to report their concerns because of familial and community pressures.

We are scratching the surface, and it really irks me that each and every time it gets in the news, it’s two things.

Number one is that it’s the biggest recruiter for the far right in this country. If you go on any far right website, they use the grooming gangs more so than Isis or terror attacks as the means by which they recruit far right activists.

So we should be tackling this, and by “we” I mean everybody, including the communities most impacted, and most implicated.

Number two is we need to intervene much earlier, but we also need to do some perpetrator programmes. There are perpetrators involved who are still in denial about their activities. There are still people out there who think “well, it’s fair game”.

How can it be prevented from happening in future?

Much more work has to happen in terms of the perpetrators and perpetrators of the future – and that, of course, involves early education.

Too often, we wait until high school to start talking about gender equality and relationship education. We should be starting to talk to them about these types of behaviours and what they should be looking out for when they’re five, six and seven. We’re just building up a problem for the future by not doing any of this.

We should have mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse. If you see someone being abused, or you perceive to be being abused, then it should be your duty to report. What the government has said recently is that social workers have come out against it. And my response would be: “Well they would, wouldn’t they?”

NGOs are doing phenomenal work in its field, so there are lots of charities and groups up and down the country trying to identify victims and potential perpetrators. They don’t get enough funding. They’re working on a shoestring.

What do you say to those suggesting ethnicity plays a part?

The vast majority of children and young people are abused within the family. We must not lose sight of that. The second largest group of victims are online. Today, you can pay pennies to watch a child being abused in real-time, somewhere in the world. The third largest group is institutional; we know about places of worship – churches, mosques – we also know about the FA and football and judo and sporting clubs, and the BBC.

Street grooming is the smallest – significant nonetheless, we’re still talking about thousands of victims. It’s smallest comparatively to the other three areas.

More than 80 per cent of child sexual offenders are British white men.

When I’ve prosecuted Stuart Hall or Max Clifford, or whatever, people never said “oh, his religion, his ethnicity”, as if that was important. It wasn’t in their cases, and they remain the vast majority of offenders.

I’ve always said the ethnicity of street groomers is an issue. We can’t pretend that’s not what’s happening.

The night-time economy is one issue. But it’s not the issue.The issue is the availability and vulnerability of young girls. The issue is the fact that they are unwanted and unloved. They get no support: the NGOs that support them aren’t properly funded, neither are children’s services. That is the issue.

But ethnicity is an issue, and I don’t think the community is doing enough. I was really pleased to see, some months ago, I was invited to the launch of the Greater Manchester Muslim community organisation, and one of their four priorities is tackling grooming. And that is rare. Most communities would rather not talk about the subject, would beat me up [verbally] quite regularly for mentioning it, and unless we tackle it, bigots don’t need an excuse to hate you, so why do we give them an excuse? Why are we not tackling an issue that can be tackled?

You can’t just generalise about what it is that might be driving these men. We need to do a great deal more research into background, why perpetrators become perpetrators, in the same way we’re trying to identify why victims become victims.

Authorities are often accused of being scared to act because of political correctness. How do you feel about that?

I’ve not come across anybody who’s scared. I get bored of this going unchallenged. These are difficult cases to prosecute. Very often, the victim treats the prosecutor or the investigator as the bad guy for trying to destroy their “relationships”. Competence was the issue – people not understanding how to bring these cases. They had to leave their tick-boxes and their normal pro formas aside.

Some people, no doubt, may not want to offend a certain community, but I would imagine they’re in the minority. The large majority fail to engage because it’s really difficult.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.