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Sunday, July 5, 2009

Mobiles Increase Reach at Childline Kenya

Childline Kenya is about child protection. “We run at 24 hour children’s helpline which is both an emergency response service for abused children who need someone to help and an information line where children who have difficulties or questions that are bothering them can call us, we can talk to them, have a chat, do counseling on line, deal with abuse.” Irene Nyamu is the Deputy Director of Childline Kenya. She also worked at Plan for about 3 years before moving to her new post. Photo: Irene during a community visit in Kwale.

At Childline, Irene is constantly looking at new issues and situations because the field of child rights and child protection is vast. Childine works with everything from adoption issues to drug addiction to child abuse within the family and juvenile justice. “I wasn’t too versed in legislation, laws that relate to children and I’ve had to learn so much,” she says.

Before Childline, there was a government line, but it wasn’t a 24-hour line and it wasn’t free. If a child wanted help they had to have money to call. “What we’ve done as Childline is try very much to leverage support from the government’s Dept. of Children’s services.” For the last 3 years children have known that they can call to get the service. But Childline has involved government of Kenya along the way. “We’ve helped build government capacity and have proven that it’s possible to have a child helpline without a heavy cost. We’ve demonstrated its usefulness.”

When Childline first started, they had a fixed line with a free call number and got around 600 calls per month. “Since we’ve moved to mobiles, we get about 20,000 calls per month and we are still not meeting the needs of the population.” Childline Kenya’s has 9 counselors during the day and about 6 at night. To optimally operate, Irene estimates needing around 15 during day and 10 at night or more. “When we were on a landline, we had a long phone number that was difficult to remember, and most people don’t have access to fixed line. So now with the 116 short code, it’s quite easy to remember and very accessible on mobile."

As for concerns that children cannot access a phone to report in, people should not assume children do not have access to phones. Childline confronted this and has proven that if the information is out there, children will find someone that is willing to help them make a call. “Many children now call us even without a fixed line. They have a teacher, an auntie, a big sister who will allow them to borrow the phone. I’ve seen that almost everybody in the community has a SIM card. They do not have a handset, but when they need to make a call they just borrow a handset for a few minutes and somehow they do it. We can’t make the argument that children can’t use technology. There are innovative ways of using the technology so let’s put the technology out there and stop assuming that people can’t access it.”

What about credit? This is a very important issue. “If organizations or institutions want to use SMS, then there is an investment cost unless you are able to acquire a short code.

Childline tracks how many people have dialed in and how many calls they actually receive, and they currently receive many more calls than they are able to manage. Irene thinks that one way of extending the service out to more children might be an increased use of SMS, which is extremely common and accessible in Kenya. “To meet the needs of our population, I think this FrontlineSMS training was really useful. We can now go in to explore how to use SMS for child helpline work in order to offer more alternatives to children. If you can’t call, can you SMS? And how do those numbers compare?” Photo: Learning to set up Frontline SMS for mobile data gathering, SMS outreach and auto-responses.

“I love working at Childline because every new day is different. Every new call that comes in, you can anticipate a new challenge.” One way to meet some of these challenges is via new technologies such as mobile outreach and mobile data gathering.

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