Call for Help: An open line for protecting children

Helpline counselors are addressing mental health issues and violence against children

Rose Foley
Barbra Sillingi
UNICEFKenya/2021/LameckOrina
05 October 2021

In a protected booth, carefully separated from her co-workers, Barbra Sillingi listens intently before speaking calmly into her telephone headset.

As a counsellor in the Nairobi offices of Childline Kenya, a national helpline for children that addresses mental health and violence against children, ‘listen to them’ is her mission and her passion.

“When a child comes to you and tells you something, we should not ignore them,” Sillingi said. “We should listen to their voice, listen to what they are saying because they also have feelings. They also need to be loved.”

Since March 2020, when the first case of COVID-19 was officially confirmed, Sillingi has had to listen twice as hard as the number of weekly calls has more than doubled. In May 2020, there were more than 1,200 calls to Childline Kenya, up from fewer than 500 in May 2019.

“The increase in calls could be attributed to the fact that children spent a lot of time at home during the COVID period and were not going to school,” said Beatrice Muema, Head of Helpline Operations at Childline Kenya. “Because of that, you find more children were vulnerable to sexual abuse, neglect and also physical abuse.”

COVID-19 placed significant strain on children in Kenya. Many struggled to cope with the restrictions on movement designed to help curb the spread of the coronavirus. As a result, some faced increased dangers, especially during school closures. For many children, COVID restrictions, school closures and the rise in risk left them in need of someone who could really listen.

“Children go through a lot of stresses and mostly parents do not understand,” Sillingi said.

Throughout the pandemic, Barbra Sillingi has offered counselling to every one of her callers and has referred some cases to local authorities for intervention.

 “I love what I do,” she said. “It’s just a passion that I have.”

Barbra at the office
UNICEFKenya/2021/LameckOrina

Childline Kenya was set up in 2004 with support from the Government of Kenya, UNICEF and other partners. The free 24-hour emergency service allows anyone across the country to anonymously report child abuse and other child protection concerns by calling the free helpline number 116 or visiting Childlinekenya.co.ke. It offers one-on-one counselling and connects children with support services in their communities.

Childline Kenya also works with the Department of Children’s Services to intervene when children are in danger and, when possible, place them with other family members.

UNICEF provides funding for counsellors and equipment and training for staff members. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the organization funded a one-third increase in the number of counsellors to meet increased demand. UNICEF also is working with the Department of Children Services to ensure a gradual increase in public financing for operation.

“While there were restrictions on movement and children were out of school, this was one of the few channels for children and adults to report incidents of abuse, but also for children to express themselves,” said Bernard Njue Kiura, UNICEF Kenya Child Protection Specialist.

Spot stop it poster 2
UNICEF Kenya

UNICEF also helped Childline Kenya to set up remote working, allowing counsellors to securely take calls from their homes. UNICEF also got the word out through a nationwide public awareness campaign, ‘Spot it, Stop it’, that encouraged children in need to call the free 116 helpline.

“Since COVID-19, people here in Kenya are more open about discussing mental health issues: from Government, to service providers, to communities, to children,” Kiura said. “The capacity to speak about it has increased.”

By Rose Foley