KIBERA, Kenya – At the Adventure Pride Center School, 15-year-old Mary Annie Injendeka stands in the middle of the classroom, talking with a group of fellow female students.
“As girls, we need to take care of our bodies and ensure that we maintain high standards of hygiene, because us girls are very different from boys,” Injendeka says.
About 15 girls sit on the floor, on the table and two wooden benches, listening keenly as she tells them about the importance of personal hygiene and how to avoid sexual predators.
As one of the ambassadors for her school’s sanitation program, Injendeka regularly holds sessions with female pupils to talk about their bodies and their rights. But she knows that sometimes the girls are dealing with more serious issues, such as unintended pregnancy, sexual abuse and HIV infection – issues they might not feel comfortable sharing in a group. So she reminds them that they can write down their innermost fears and deepest secrets, all in confidence, and put them into a wooden box installed in the school playground: the Talking Box. Someone will read the message, and find a way to help them.
The Talking Box is part of a program run by the Polycom Development Project, which focuses on fighting sexual violence and exploitation in the informal settlement of Kibera in Nairobi. If a girl needs help or has a question, but feels she has nowhere to turn, she can drop a message into a locked mahogany box somewhere safe and convenient at her school. At the end of each week, a team of Polycom volunteers open the box and read through all of the messages. They then try to address the concerns the girls have.
If several girls have the same problem, the volunteers will arrange a group session where the girls can come up with a solution together. If it’s a more general issue – such as a broken toilet in the girls’ bathroom – the volunteers take it to the teachers or school administration. If a girl includes her name with her message, one of the volunteers will find her to address her concerns directly.
And every quarter, the team prepares a report for the school based on the recurring issues that come into the Talking Box, so that the school can see where it needs to make improvements or address an issue schoolwide.
“Girls need to be watched over,” says Injendeka. “If you leave them, they can easily become prey.”
Jane Anyango, the founder of Polycom Development Projects and the Talking Box program, says she got the idea for the initiative in 2010, after her niece, who was only 13 at the time, had an affair with a middle-aged married man and ended up pregnant.
Her niece’s experience compelled Anyango to start holding regular meetings with young and teenage girls at her home, giving them somewhere to speak candidly about their worries and fears.
But she noticed that the talks were being dominated by a few girls, while those who seemed really troubled would sit silently. So Anyango, who is from Kibera, came up with the Talking Box and introduced the idea to local schools. The program launched in January 2011 in eight schools, and today is being used in 17 schools, reaching a total of 2,000 girls under the age of 18.
“I have been approached by other institutions to help them start the same in other areas,” Anyango says. “But resources have not enabled us to do so.”
A recent batch of messages from one Talking Box shows girls trying to cope with physical abuse, sexual assault and emotional trauma.
“Our neighbor pressures me to have sex with him.”
“My mother never loved me since I was a child.”
“My parent beats me like an animal.”
Student ambassador Injendeka learned about the Talking Box in 2015, after she revealed to two friends that she was worried a much older man was grooming her for sex.
She was 13, and he was the local shopkeeper. He would ask her to go to his home and wash his dishes or cook him dinner, always when his wife was not around. He often gave her items from his shop for free and told her not to tell anyone. This went on for 18 months. Injendeka knew the way she was being treated was wrong, but didn’t know how to make it stop.
“I had a lot of secrets that were burning my heart and I could not talk to anyone about anything,” she says.
When she finally told her friends, they suggested she use the school’s Talking Box. She wrote down her story and, in response, one of the volunteers met with her to explain her rights and show her how to tell the shopkeeper to stop harassing her. It worked.
Injendeka now thinks of herself as her “sisters’ keeper,” encouraging other female students to drop their issues into the Talking Box. And she says the support she got when she shared her story has given her the courage to face another life challenge.
“I am happy that having raised my voice through the program, I am now more confident and on track to realize my dream of becoming a doctor one day to save thousands of people from suffering,” she says.