Brenda Kalekie, a graduate of Soda Academy in the Nairobi suburb of Kibera, Kenya, is one of the proud beneficiaries of the Talking Boxes project launched by Polycom Development. The initiative funded her entire education when she admitted to the talking box from his school at the time that he was having difficulty paying his tuition fees and would soon drop out.
“When the Talking Boxes project came to my school many years ago, we were told it was a safe place to share our problems. I listened, I shared my opinion and after two weeks a solution was found”, he says. This 22-year-old, who is now engaged in business, assures that she would not have completed her studies if she had not participated in the project. “I was in seventh place and I had a lot of difficulties. Before I was told about the program, I had decided to drop out of school and look for a job to make ends meet. The initiative paid for my primary and secondary education,” he explains.
Kalekye, who is currently one of Talking Boxes’ advisers, says her story is no different from the many she now knows when she reads the letters on the boxes. “I decided to correspond with the project that saved my life, and I encourage girls to share their problems through it, because a shared problem is already half solved,” she emphasizes.
Kalekye is just one of the hundreds, if not thousands, of Kibera children who have benefited from this program, which is supported by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). It was in 2010 that Kenya’s Polycom Development, a non-governmental organization that works to empower school-going children in the suburbs, launched the Talking Box Project to help teenagers deal with what it means to live in marginal neighborhood?
The initiative, which has since expanded to 50 public and private primary schools in the Kibera slum, encourages young people to write on any issue related to the violation of their rights, especially sexual and reproductive rights, and leave a piece of paper in a box in your school.
After a week or two, the advisers, who are young girls involved in the project and especially from the suburbs, empty the ballot boxes. The issues are then discussed in meetings between Polycom Development staff and the girls.
At least one in five adolescents between the ages of 15 and 19 is a mother or pregnant, making Kenya the country with the third highest number of teenage pregnancies.
The location of the containers varies by school, but the final decision is entirely up to the teenagers. According to the NGO, this helps build trust in the project and allows them to put themselves in a place where the girls feel safer. The keys with which they are locked remain with the organization to reduce any interference from adults, such as teachers, who sometimes appear as perpetrators of sexual abuse cases.
Polycom assures that since the beginning of the project they have received 74,965 messages. “This year we received 1,091 in the first quarter, 1,000 in the second, 853 in the third and now we are in the fourth,” explains Feni Ogembo, one of the NGO’s advisers.
Many of the messages deal with topics such as the need for pads, incest, attempted rape, sexual assault and harassment, sexually transmitted diseases or non-payment of school fees. They also ask for food and even refer to domestic problems. A study by the University of Nairobi shows that 56% of young people in Kibera between the ages of 13 and 18 have experienced some form of sexual violence and that only 12% of these cases are officially reported by the victims.
“We once intervened in the case of a seven-year-old girl who was being sexually abused by a neighbor with the knowledge of her mother and grandmother. It was one of the most difficult episodes to deal with because both the grandmother and the mother refused to come forward, so we had to get the girl out of that environment and now she is much better,” explains Ogembo.
The covid-19 pandemic
In July this year, the Ministry of Health reported that at least one in five teenage girls between the ages of 15 and 19 is a mother or pregnant, making Kenya the third country in the world with the highest number of teenage pregnancies. According to the report, there has been an increase due to the fatal effects of the covid-19 pandemic and the closure of educational centers for seven months, which has exposed young girls to all kinds of dangers.
Evelyn Suila, co-founder of Polycom Development, says the situation in Kibera is even worse, as evidenced by the scale of the problems reported at the cash registers. “When schools reopened after seven months of closure during the pandemic, we realized that many of our girls are having a really hard time. Incidents of sexual violence, lack of padding and sexual services for money abound,” denounces the initiator of the initiative.
Swilla says that Polycom then decided to launch projects, such as fighting covid-19 with hygiene measures, that gave the girls the opportunity to make a positive difference in the community they live in, and also used its system of external partners. to handle the most severe cases. “As an NGO, we cannot take legal action or make arrests. Therefore, in situations where it was necessary to rescue the girls, we referred the case to the Juvenile Department of the district administration and participated in the entire process,” she explains.
The organization also organizes volleyball tournaments that girls are invited to attend with their parents to encourage positive behavior. “During the tournaments, the girls and their mothers have the opportunity to talk openly about their problems and try to find a solution. It is also a good opportunity for young women to exercise and keep fit,” explains Ogembo.
In response to the numerous letters they receive about the lack of sanitary napkins, the NGO produces and distributes sanitary napkins as well as cleaners for school bathrooms in the suburbs of Kibera, Mathare, Mukuru kwa Neinga and Kiambu.
The manufacturing process, which uses local materials provided through grants received, ensures that schools are supplied with these much-needed items. “Each quarter we distribute more than 2,000 packs of sanitary napkins, benefiting 2,500 girls. We also saw that there are students who suffer from urinary tract infections and that is why we distribute at least five liters of preparation for school and term”, says Suila.
The organizers of Talking Boxes claim that thanks to their intervention, the incidence of teenage pregnancy has decreased and the absence of girls from school during menstruation has decreased dramatically.
You can follow PLANETA FUTURO on Twitter, Facebook and Instagramand subscribe here to our newsletter.