2023 marks the 20th Anniversary of Child Helpline International. To celebrate this momentous occasion, we have invited 20 of our members – from all around the world, founding members and members who have recently joined us – to share their stories in a special series that will run between now and World Children’s Day on 20 November 2023.
In November 2007, a young girl strolled towards an office with a big banner at the entrance, on which was written "0800-221-0800". She was reporting to work, as a volunteer counsellor, for the first time at Childline Kenya. She did not know much about online counselling but was confident that she had all that was required to do a good job...
The journey had just started in terms of supporting children in distress. This young girl was me! I am Martha Sunda, now the Executive Director of Childline Kenya.
Childline Kenya is a NGO that was set up in 2004 to respond to child protection concerns in Kenya. It was founded by Plan International, SOS Children’s Villages and the Kenya Alliance for the Advancement of Children (KAACR).
Some of the challenges the country faced at that time (and still faces today) include:
- Increased rate of child abuse/broken family system.
- Inadequate access to affordable and professional mental health and psychosocial support for children and their families.
- Weak coordination of response to reported cases of children in need of care and protection.
Childline Kenya was established to create an enabling environment for children to voice their concerns, be listened to and be linked with essential services through a coordinated referral system nationwide.
Thus, the National Child Helpline 116 Service was born. This is a telephone-based service through which children can reach out to report abuse and other concerns that cause distress to them, and receive the necessary support, including immediate counselling and effective referral to child protection services. Other members of the public also access the child helpline to report cases on behalf of children. This service is co-managed with the Directorate of Children Services in a formal engagement through a Public Private Partnership model.
Apart from providing the childhelpline service – which is an avenue for response to violence against children – Childline Kenya also implements activities to prevent child abuse from happening in the first instance. These activities include:
- Strengthening of the Child Protection System through Capacity Building and coordination of the referral network to support all children in need of care and protection.
- Building the capacity of people who work with and take care of children and their concerns (Children Officers, teachers, parents, the police, the judiciary, court users etc.) for provision of the most effective and efficient support to children in their care.
- Address abuse before it happens through awareness creation at the community level.
- Analysing the child helpline data to inform policy and practice based on the evidence availed through the child protection trends highlighted in the helpline data analysis.
The idea to be members of Child Helpline International was therefore welcome as our activities are very much aligned to the work of other child helplines globally. It has therefore been a wonderful opportunity to engage with like-minded institutions on a journey to improve services to the children for whom we exist.
When I joined Childline Kenya as a volunteer counsellor I was eager, yet a bit scared of the unknown. By the end of that first week I was really troubled about the situations that children were going through, just based on the reports that were being handled. But I was also mighty glad that there was an opportunity for me to be available for these children, and to offer them support. I knew in my heart that I wanted to continue this work from that day on.
Slightly more than a year later, I enrolled for my Masters Degree in Child Development. My fate was sealed. It has been more than 15 years since I walked through that door for the first time. Nothing prepared me for the huge feelings of satisfaction, hurt, pain, appreciation, regrets, anger and all manner of emotions and experiences that awaited me throughout the years of service.
I have enjoyed working with and for children, and I have grown in leaps and bounds. As the current Executive Director of Childline Kenya, I am also able to consider the welfare of our staff members and the needs of our beneficiaries more personally and holistically, based on my own experiences as a counsellor. I have been a part of Childline Kenya’s milestones, from launching the shortcode number 116, the first in Africa to transition from an analogue telephone system to a digital one; from hosting a regional consultation of child helplines in Nairobi, Kenya, to supporting new helplines to set up and mentoring existing ones to become better; from working as an independent NGO running the child helpline to formally partnering with the Government of Kenya for the management of the National Child Helpline service; and from working with a maximum of 10 counsellors to engagement of over 40 counsellors at a time!
I have grown professionally, academically and personally while at Childline Kenya. Now married and with five children, my dream for the future is that someday every child will have equal opportunity and chance to access the child helpline service, for mental health and psychosocial support at one ring or one click, all the time and from anywhere in the world.
Voices of Children and Young People
For some time, a concerned neighbour could hear a child crying in pain on an almost daily basis. The neighbour didn’t know what exactly was happening to the child bu suspected that something was not right. Armed with only that information, the neighbour called the Child Helpline 116 number. All he had was a deep conviction that the child was in distress and needed help.
As he reported the case, he feared his call would simply be dismissed as “unsubstantiated speculation”. To his relief, however, the child helpline immediately facilitated a social enquiry and subsequent rescue of the child, who unfortunately was being violated at the hands of his aunt and uncle. Although the boy was of school-going age he was being denied the right to go to school. He was also being overworked at home; he was left every day to care for a 2-year-old, despite being only a child himself. He was also being beaten for the flimsiest of reasons.
Thankfully, through the intervention of the child helpline, the child has since been reunited with his primary family who, though poor, have great love for the boy and are committed to keeping him safe. He is now thriving in a warm home environment.