By Rose Odengo

WeNews correspondent

Monday, May 28, 2012

Some schoolgirls in Kibera, Kenya‘s largest slum, are writing down their problems and submitting them to a message box. Schools are using the information to alleviate everything from molestation to family financial pressures.

NAIROBI, Kenya (WOMENSENEWS)–It is 2:30 p.m. in Kibera, Kenya’s largest slum.

Under a vengefully hot sun, a girl wearing a green-and-white checkered dress, matching socks and a red sweater walks along smiling, cradling a wooden box in her sturdy arms like a newborn.

Rebecca Apiyo, 14, is in her final year of primary school at Adventure Pride Centre, a school run by a nongovernmental group. She is the head prefect and also the student in charge of the Talking Box, a place for students to lodge written messages about bothersome things they can’t talk about out loud.

Concerns range from their families’ inability to pay school fees to revelations of abuse and neglect.

“My family is poor and I need books and pencils for school,” reads one anonymous note. Please help me.”

“My father does inappropriate things to me,” reads another. “When I do something wrong my father tells me to take all my clothes off and he beats me naked, and I am a 13 year old girl.”

The Talking Box is a program started by Polycomdev, a local community-based organization in Kibera.

The children write down their concerns on pieces of paper and slip them into the sealed, dark mahogany box. Every two weeks, the Polycomdev team of volunteers collects the papers that have been neatly folded and submitted to the boxes.

From the boxes’ contents, the volunteers prepare quarterly reports for each school and discuss students’ problems with their teachers. In some serious cases, the volunteers seek out the students to address them directly.

Serious Cases Forwarded

The school has forwarded some molestation cases to the Department of Children’s Services under the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Development.

The team is currently consolidating all the reports to submit to that same ministry and the Ministry of Education.

The Talking Box program strives to give young students, especially girls, a chance to voice their concerns in a less daunting platform. Rebecca says that the Talking Box helps girls who don’t know how to approach parents about their needs.

“Some girls only live with their fathers, and he is male, and some find it hard to ask for things like sanitary towels,” she says. “They think it is bad.”

She encourages her peers to trust their parents and speak to them about their concerns, especially with the help of the Talking Box.

Rebecca’s mother, Francissa Apiyo, 46, says that all parents should know about the Talking Box project. She says that parents should change their approach to raising their children and make the home a more comfortable place for kids to voice their concerns.

Educators say the program is reducing school dropouts and improving academic performance for girls.

According to the Kenya Independent Schools Association, 40 percent of the 1.5 million residents of the Kibera slum are children. Children from poor, urban neighborhoods are less likely to attend school, according to UNICEF‘s State of the World’s Children 2012 Report. Even in countries that offer free primary education, such as Kenya, ancillary costs such as school uniforms, classroom stationery or even exam fees make education an unaffordable cost for families in poor areas.

Extra Obstacles

Girls especially face extra obstacles to education, from a lack of sanitation facilities and sanitary napkins to teenage pregnancy, according to a 2008 report by the Centre for the Study of Adolescence in Kenya.

Kennedy Oduol, principal of Adventure Pride Centre, says that the Talking Box program provides female students especially an opportunity to speak up about various challenges they face.

“Most of the girls were being molested at home,” he says, providing one example. “And at school, the teachers were harsh on them trying to complete the [education] syllabus.”

Polycomdev introduced the Talking Box program in January 2011 and now runs it in 10 schools, nearly all of which are in Kibera.

Jane Anyango, founder of Polycomdev and the Talking Box program, says that the experiences of her teenage niece compelled her to begin addressing issues facing girls. Her 13-year-old niece wasn’t able to talk to her freely about her dislike for the neglect she faced both before and after she began an intimate relationship with and married a middle-aged man.

From this experience, Anyango began to periodically invite girls in her neighborhood to discuss the things that challenged them.

“These young girls need someone to talk to,” Anyango says. “They go through so much and some parents are not understanding.”

She soon saw that there was a stronger need to reach more girls.

“I felt like schools were the best place to reach girls,” she says. “Because they can talk more freely away from home.”