Heart to heart conversations through a Talking Box.

In Kenya many children are left to deal with problems on their own. A heart to heart conversation between a parent and a child is often considered to be shameful and disrespectful to both parties. In Kibera, the largest informal settlement in Sub-Saharan Africa, suffering in silence while enduring a problem has been a norm for many girls.

Speaking up

The poor living conditions coupled with economic hardships – residents work mostly as casual laborers at the nearby industrial area and live on less than $2 a day. Often they don’t have money to buy food, medicine or to pay for education and there’s a shortage of clean water. All of this predisposes residents of Kibera to a long list of problems including abuse and it’s a particularly acute problem for girls.

New communication platform Talking Boxes is making it easier for girls to speak up about issues they can’t talk to their parents about. It’s run by Polycom Development, an organisation started in response to the sexual violence and exploitation faced by young girls in Kibera and aims at helping girls share what they face and feel.

Ann (not her real name) is a class six pupil at Adventure Academy who is fearful of speaking openly with her mother. “I live with my step-dad,” she says. “During the holidays last year I told my mum I wanted to visit my dad who lives in the village and she beat me. I am scared she will beat me again, so I don’t tell her anything anymore.”

A child in Kibera faces numerous challenges as they transit from adolescence into adulthood. They find themselves in a often hostile slum environment characterized by unemployment – 50% of residents are unemployed – along with poor housing, violence, crime, drug and alcohol abuse. Due to unemployment most young people spend their days in local cinemas, drinking joints and in gang activities focusing on extortion, illegal electricity tapping, rape and robbery with violence.

Talking helps

Ann is grateful for the Talking Boxes because she has a way to express herself without the fear of beatings. “I can talk freely about my dad anonymously. I know I don’t get to see him, but by writing the notes I know someone is listening and helping me deal with it,” says Ann.

Founder Jane Anyango believes that sharing anonymous notes is very helpful. The notes are dropped into a locked mahogany box placed somewhere safe and convenient in school. Every week a member of Polycom Development project team opens the box and reads through the messages and tries to address the concerns the girls have. “We encourage them to tell us how to find them [especially] if they feel they have issues that we should intervene immediately,” says Anyango.

They started out 2010 with very little resources, initially using cartons as Talking Boxes. “This was very hard because they (students) would destroy the boxes. Later a volunteer made us the wooden boxes.”

Now, there are Talking Boxes in 16 school with a plan to scale up to 50 over coming months.

Parents, too

Judy is a parent at Adventure Academy who recognises the challenge in talking openly with teenagers. “We would also like know what kind of issues our children are dealing with so that we can also assist our girls in dealing with them too,” she says.

Some of the issues are overwhelming. Jemimah did not know who speak to when she was raped. Her friend, Yvonne, was an ambassador for Talking Box and advised her to use the scheme. “Polycom visited the school and during a girls counselling session they were able to identify that the anonymous note was from and took her to a hospital. Later they enrolled her for counselling services,’ says Yvonne.

Growth, and football

More schools are now requesting to be included in the project. “Picking up on signs of sexual abuse and stopping it is a great score for us. We encourage other organisations to work with boys because to have a society that is conducive for girls, we need boys to be empowered.” says Jane Anyango.

“This is not about schools or us but about the girls. We are able to identify the girls, monitor their progress and the healing process.”

Polycom are expanding their activity into football tournaments and conferences where girls interact with each other and with trained counsellors.

“We want to intensify awareness about Talking Boxes because most people don’t understand why it is important to express yourself without fear. I am inspired by parents who come to express their gratitude for this project. In the future I hope to expand this project beyond Kibera slums so that I can reach as many girls as possible.

More info here.