Kenya’s Ministry of Education has long battled to deal with sex education in learning institutions. Basically, it has only acted on the physical outcome, in the form of teenage pregnancies. This challenge has proven to be a huge headache for learning institutions in Kenya, with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) stating that in 2016, more than 370 000 students between the age of 10 and 19 got pregnant. But now Polycom Development Project, a community-based advocacy organisation based in Kibera informal settlement, is providing adolescent girls in primary schools with a safe and anonymous platform to express themselves. They have named it “Talking Boxes”.

Talking Boxes were initiated by Polycom’s founding director, Jane Anyango, who realised that in sexual harassment and gender-based violence discussions, some girls had trouble expressing themselves in the presence of their peers. Jane initiated one-on-one meetings, but these were time consuming. This lead to the creation of Talking Boxes. In collaboration with UNFPA, the boxes offer girls a platform where they can share their deepest and most painful secrets through anonymous notes dropped into locked boxes mounted in their various schools. The notes are then collected and collated, and the individual issues raised are responded to through speak-out forums, one-on-one counselling and referrals, depending on the weight of the issues.

One such note, written by a pupil and dropped into a box, reads: “I need help, I cannot control myself, I have high sexual urge that I cannot say no to any man. I had sex with my friend’s father and he gave me 100/=. A teacher in my school started touching me when I took my homework to his office. We were alone, so we ended up having sex. I have had sex with three of my boyfriend’s friends and they do not know. I am scared that I will get pregnant, I need help on how I can control myself.”

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Violence at home

In 2018, a total of 4 500 notes were collected through the boxes. Of these, 234 involved rape, defilement and sexually transmitted diseases. The highest reports involved violence at home, closely followed by bodily changes during adolescence and requests for sanitary towels. Boys also reported a variety of issues, ranging from sodomy to neglect. One of the students also reported considering suicide.

Teachers were skeptical, but after seeing the results, with a minimum of 40 cases per week, teachers at the partner institutions have grown receptive.

“We started with carton boxes in seven schools, but they would get wet and kids would kick them around, leading to the loss of all the content,” said Jane. Currently 50 partner schools have metal Talking Boxes and a total of 5 000 pupils use the boxes. At the inception, teachers were skeptical, stating that Polycom Development would benefit at the expense of the pupils. But after seeing the results, with a minimum of 40 cases per week, teachers at the partner institutions have grown receptive.

Youngest contributor

The youngest contributor was a lonely class-two pupil, who struggled to put into words her emotional struggles after her ailing grandmother was taken to hospital and she was left alone. Even with her limited knowledge of the alphabet, she was able to speak out through pen and paper and get help. The project has been successful and powerful because it gives the organisation a chance to detect and act on possible cases of violence. “Some kids will report suspicious behaviour coming from their close relatives, like suggestive touches and stares,” says Jane. “Some cases even involve teachers, the very ones who have been tasked to be custodians of these innocent children,” she continued.

The project has been successful and powerful because it gives the organisation a chance to detect and act on possible cases of violence.

Delicate cases demand creative and street-smart solutions. “One of the cases that was very disturbing involved a class eight girl who wrote that her father and brother sexually violated her on various occasions and she had been wounded in her private parts. She suggested that we go to her school and speak to her and her classmates. After the forum was over, I asked all the students to hug me and I spotted her. I whispered in her ear that we would help her get treatment,” says Jane.

A sample of a note from a school talking box.

In situations like these, Polycom has to be creative in its approach to ensure that they do not get too involved or too withdrawn from a case, ensuring that the victims do not face discrimination, not only from their peers but also from the society.

Specific solutions to specific problems

Through Talking Boxes, the solutions to problems can be specific. Another benefit is that they work for all ages and sexes by providing a platform to communicate and a window for action to be taken. They act as a reality check – in contrast to society’s usual, misplaced wish that little boys and girls should know very little.

Samples of notes written by children through the talking boxes mounted in their schools.

“The right time to talk to our children about vital issues in society is now, by listening to them when they initiate conversations and speaking to them with love and concern. Talking Boxes can reduce teenage pregnancy and school fires if they are installed and properly used nationally,” says Jane.

This solution, devised to address the problems faced by young adolescents in a heavily populated informal settlement, with dark and narrow alley ways, where fresh streams of raw sewage run down streets and rusting structures are called home, may be what every institution in Kenya needs for young minds to express themselves. Acknowledging that adolescents have a voice and providing them with options are key to keeping them safe and bettering their lives.