By Christian Benard

Childbearing begins early in Kenya, with almost one in four women giving birth by age 18 and nearly one in two by age 20. Additionally, 18% of adolescent women age 15-19 years are already mothers or pregnant with their first child, according to data from the Kenya Demographic and Health Survey.

Further, a United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Report notes that Kenya has recorded 378, 397 adolescent and teenage pregnancies for girls aged 10-19 years between July 2016 and June 2017, specifically, 28, 932 girls aged 10-14 years and 349,465 girls aged 15-19 years became pregnant.

Key among the drivers of this trend is little or lack of education including sexual and reproductive health (SRH) education, poverty, early sexual initiation, harmful cultural practices such as child marriages; sexual abuse/violence and barriers to access to SRH service, according to a policy brief by the African Institute for Development Policy (AFIDEP) on teenage pregnancies in Kenya.

The situation is worsened in informal settlements such as Kibera whereby the African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC) notes that despite significant population of young people residing in slum communities, little attention has been paid to the SRH challenges they face during their transition to adulthood within their environment. The social determinants of these challenges being poverty, social norms and lack of essential necessities.

Kibera with a population of about 250,000 people is one of the densely populated areas in Nairobi County and Africa’s largest slum. Many of the young women especially adolescents face several challenges ranging from early pregnancies, lack of essential necessities, and sexual harassment.

This in turn results to high number of school dropout rates either due to lack of sustainability in school as some of this girls come from very poor backgrounds and early marriages.

To better the chances of these girls finishing school,  Polycom Development Project, a non-governmental organization based in Kibera is providing these essential necessities while mentoring and counseling the adolescents and other young women to make better choices for their lives.

Terry Jephiter- Assistant monitoring and evaluation officer during a mentorship session with students from Red Rose primary school in Kibera.

To achieve their goal of empowering girls to manage their lives positively, the organization is working with 50 schools in Kibera to reach adolescent girls and has extended their program to include young women aged 16 to 25 years who are not in school.

They carry out mentorship and counselling sessions, provide sanitary towels, detergents, financial support for education and sports activities in order to be able to manage their lives positively and ultimately develop a voice that can influence policy and decision making on issues that affect the lives of girls and women.

“We have programs we do to realize our goal. For adolescent girls there are ‘talking boxes’ which in collaboration with UNFPA,  is a safe platform through which adolescent girls privately engage with the organization,” said Teresa Jephiter, Assistant Monitoring and Evaluation Officer, Polycom Development.

She reiterated that the boxes are placed within the schools and act as secure spaces for the girls to write their most intimate challenges and drop them in the box, with the contents collected after every week.

The organization’s Assistant Monitoring and Evaluation Officer  indicated that the ‘talking boxes’ have enabled the organization to reach a wide range of girls and give them mentorship on various areas of concern, while at the same time addressing issues facing them such as lack of sanitary pads, lack of food, rape, molestation and conflict within their home environments.

“I am Polycom’s ambassador in our school and I play the role of linking the girls with the organization. We normally sit together and identify from amongst ourselves who is to be the ambassador taking into consideration that whoever is chosen can best represent the hopes and aspirations of the other girls,” says Fantesia Khayesi, a grade 8 student at St. Juliet Educational Centre Kibera.

“There are ‘talking boxes’ in school which can only be accessed by Polycom, so anyone having a challenge can safely write down and drop it in the boxes whereby they are later collected for action to be done.

She notes that once they are collected, the organization arranges for mentorship forums through which those with various problems reach Polycom’s mentors and officials for guidance and assistance.

Teresa Jephiter displaying a talking box in one of the schools

“Polycom has helped me to grow by enabling me to be my own decision maker. The programs we are exposed to for instance, the mentorship sessions and counselling have moulded my thoughts and perceptions on matters that affect the girl child. As a result, I’m not easily convinced to do something because somebody has said so or because others are doing it,” said Khayesi.

Khayesi has called on young girls in the area and beyond to take up the responsibility of speaking out whenever they face problems pertaining to sexual violence.

“My message to other young girls out there is that you should not shy away from sharing your stories because it is through coming out in the open that we can together fight and stop the many challenges we encounter,” she said.

Noting that the projects of the organization runs on quarterly basis within a year, Jephiter said:  “This year, during the first quarter, we were able to receive 3,502 contents from the ‘talking boxes’ while in the second quarter we got 5,607 and another 1,126 on the third quarter.”

She added that the evaluation on who to assist heavily relies on the extent to which one is affected.

“Through the talking boxes we keenly identify those girls who need the utmost attention and help where we can while there are those that we refer to the hospitals for further attention,” Jephiter said.

“Up to the third quarter, a total of 357 girls have undergone sexual abuse have been referred to hospitals: 90 in the first quarter, 152 in the second quarter and 115 in the third quarter.”

Despite being a sigh of relief to Kibera girls, the organization’s projects have often met obstacles in the process.

“Some of these girls fear disclosing their stories because they think the society will stigmatize them. Some feel that sharing such experiences especially when the person in question is a close relative would result in further problems. Consequently, such cases go unattended,” Jephiter says, noting that lack of disclosure means no help.

Winnie Miyam, a form two student at Olympic secondary school, hard a difficult time when she became pregnant. Though she was torn between aborting the child and soldiering on with the pregnancy, she had already made up her mind drop out of school because of that.

Noticing her absence from school, Polycom’s ambassador in the school informed the organization and they made follow up on Miyam’s case.

“Polycom offered me counselling and advised me to get back to school as soon as I delivered. They helped me to understand that life had a second chance, and, this motivated me to reposition myself,” she says.

“I can boldly stand against all odds that blocks girls and women from achieving their dreams because the challenges I faced brought opportunities that shaped my life. Furthermore, the follow-ups that this organization makes not only to me but also to other girls here in Kibera, is something to emulate and support.”

Polycom also provides support in terms food items to the teen mothers to help them in raising their children. However,  some of the teen mothers who have gone back to school complain that their babies are not being fed by the caregivers, Jephter says, adding that some take advantage of the support and come back for restocking of supplies earlier than expected.

Mentorship programs have enabled girls from the area to develop skills and experience, with such girls being able to mentor the rest.

Hyldah Ombero, 23, a mentor at Polycom Development boasts of her experience and the strides she has so far attained under the banner of the organization.

“The organization has helped me to discover who I am and understand myself better because I have gained much experience and skills in the field of mentorship. I do mentorship to adolescent girls and we empower them to be outstanding members of the society,” she said.

Hyldah Ombero- a mentor at Polycom Development Project. Here she is giving mentorship to students at Good news Primary school in Kibera.

“Our slogan is ‘G-pende’ which means love yourself. We encourage them to love themselves before someone else loves them, and, to speak out what they have in their hearts or what they go through. Hygiene and sanitation, sexual reproductive health and rights, and gender based violence are some of the key areas we focus on.”

Polycom Development has also been able to promote hygiene and sanitation in the areas they operate in within Kibera. Through community based research they map out areas which need attention and organize cleaning activities in those places mostly schools and market places. They also incorporate the girls during the exercises.

“Cooperation between the organization and the targeted audiences have ensured realization of hygiene and sanitation in schools,” said Jephiter.

In addition, the organization has a well-orchestrated program of unlocking the rampant school dropouts due to lack of financial access by communities living in the slum. ‘Educate Her’ is a program that focuses on needy and willing girls with the desire to learn, and as a result, it has supported their education with 45 girls benefiting in 2021.

In the race to attain its aim, the organization partners with other bodies including the African Women Development and Communication Network, UNFPA, and Commission Status of Women (CSW) .

Polycom Development Project mentors distributing face masks to locals in Kibera.

In addition to its rigorous programs, Polycom had a micro project in 2020 called ‘Fighting COVID-19 through Hygiene’ which sought to position girls in Kibera to champion the fight against corona virus. It equipped girls with protective gears and right information, in curbing the spread of the disease such that they received information about COVID-19 and passed it across to others.

The challenge of small houses and rationed water, made hygiene and social distancing only theoritical. The project gave Kibera girls an opportunity to contribute positively to their community and thereby join the world as health champions in fighting covid-19 with families and peers realizing increased protection.

It is worth noting that Polycom Development projects have immensely contributed to a positive aftermath in response to the challenges girls in Kibera experience.

“Our numbers in 2021 is an encouragement to soar higher as a record sum of 682 forums and 33 counselling sessions have been attained. We have also distributed to the girls sanitary towels totaling to 6,369 packets, 1,069 personal clothing, and 705 litres of soap detergents to schools per quarter,” said Jephiter.

“From all these projects dispensed so far, in 2021, in the first quarter we reached 5,681 girls, in the second quarter 6,712 and in the third 6,312.”

Approaches such as these utilized by Polycom, can go a long way in reducing rates of teenage pregnancies not only in informal settlements but in Kenya and beyond.