SEEKING HELP ANONYMOUSLY

Boxes in Kibera schools that ‘talk’ for girls in invisible pain

Founder says initiative has improved self-esteem among learners and their school attendance has gone up.

In Summary

• The talking box is used by girls to anonymously air out their challenges. 

• It has been installed in fifty schools each with three ambassadors. 

Some notes written by girls in Kibera primary schools and placed in a talking box.
TALKING BOX: Some notes written by girls in Kibera primary schools and placed in a talking box.
Image: MERCY MUMO

Barely a teenager, Lizza (not her real name) found herself stuck with the dilemma of whether to continue with her education or get married for her family’s sake.

She had been to Standard 6 and her parents, both unemployed, could barely provide food for their family, let alone other necessities. Lizza did not even entertain the thought of ever getting an opportunity to join high school. She knew the parents couldn’t afford to pay for her fees.

Feeling she was out of viable options, she was ready to get married and ease her parents the financial burden of paying fees.

Joan, another primary schoolgirl in Kibera, had been living in fear of being defiled by her father.  He would stay back on the pretence of watching television after the rest were off to bed. He would then touch her inappropriately. She was scared of telling anyone for fear of retribution.

For Janet, the menstrual cycle was more than a punishment. She had to remain at home because she had no access to sanitary towels. She never even had innerwear.

Like many of her peers, she suffered in silence, lacking proper information on what to do during that time or whom to turn to for help as her body underwent an immense physical change.

The three are just but a few of the many girls who have suffered in silence. Many more have faced discrimination, sexual violence, harassment or other difficulties. Some develop low self-esteem, which, eventually, ruins their lives. The Kibera story reverberates across many parts of the country.

And in a move to tackle the problem, Jane Anyango, the founding director of Polycom Development Project, started the Talking Box project so victims can share their experiences without fear or intimidation.

Through messages from the Talking Box, they ask for help with school fees, sanitary towels, reporting sexual harassment, panties or proper sanitation in schools. The girls drop the notes anonymously at a location of their choice within their schools and the boxes remain locked.

Lizza, Joan and Janet overcame the challenges but their story is reminiscent of the saying, ‘Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to learn’.

From their ordeals, they got valuable life lessons, albeit painfully. The three are now benefactors of the Talking Box project. They belong to a community of individuals who believe that help, however little, goes a long way in changing society. It is part of their efforts to create a peaceful world, driven by Mother Teresa’s timeless teaching: “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”

Mentors

They believe each person has a role to play in creating a better world for all. Joan, for instance, intervenes, mentors and makes appropriate referrals to the authorities. As unnoticeable as their work might be, it is heroic in many respects, at least for the victims who have seen their lives change.

“Young mentors will go to schools and look at the content, then organise a forum to talk to the girls based on the content of the box,” she says.

“They are able to know how best to handle the cases. If it requires a referral, they will refer the girls to the necessary authorities.”

The initiative is supported by the United Nations Population Fund. UNFPA country representative Ademola Olajide said the talking box is an inexpensive, simple technology that allows girls to express themselves.

“Our vision is to ensure every informal school has the talking boxes so every girl can reach for the help she needs,” he said.

Anyango said the talking box allows girls to come out and share what they have undergone without fear or intimidation.

“We came up with this because we realised most girls with issues are scared and they don’t want to talk,” she said.

“Girls have found a space to report when people are touching them inappropriately or trying to abuse them and they can’t talk about it.”

Goodwill ambassadors

Besides physical and sexual violence, the girls report cases of corporal punishments during their periods and people talking down on them.

The programme is currently in 50 Kibera schools and each school has three goodwill ambassadors. Every school is visited every one or two weeks.

“In the case of an urgent issue, we encourage them to write their names,” Anyango said.

She said the boxes have raised the girls’ self-esteem and school attendance because they have a place to air their grievances.

“The mentors are young girls like them and the girls are able to learn that these people coped and that is why they are where they are,” she said.

The organisation partners with the schools to educate parents on the issues hurting their girls.

“We ask the school to invite us for their teacher-parent meetings and if the issue is at home, we have an in-house counsellor to handle the case from home,” Anyango said.

Training

Hanna, a former pupil at a primary school in Kibera, is the Talking Box ambassador for the school. She, alongside those representing other schools, is trained to help other girls with information and encourage them to report their problems through the talking boxes.

During an interview with The Star, she said that before the talking boxes were introduced, learners only had the option of talking to their teachers about their problems. They would approach them with issues such as lack of sanitary towels or being harassed sexually.

“However, sometimes learners were reluctant to go to teachers because some would go telling others, and that made them shy away from that option,” she said.

(Edited by F'Orieny)