My name is Jeconiah Ochollah, born and raised in Korogocho informal settlement in Nairobi. In 2014, then 17 years old, I was enrolled in the One Child at a Time programme by LVCT Health.The programme sought to reduce vulnerability to sexual exploitation and prevent HIV infection in adolescent girls and boys. Later, it was replaced by the DREAMS programme targeting adolescent girls and young women only. One Child at a Time helped me transform my life. I tell my story and what I have seen in Korogocho to make a case for the boys as I strongly believe that every girl and boy deserve such a chance.
At that time, I vividly remember us – the young boys and girls in Korogocho – selling scrap metals and plastics, trafficking drugs, and fetching water in the scorching sun to earn a living. I wondered if one day we would have enough food to eat and a safe place to sleep and go to school, something that I really yearned for in my life. Because I knew the world was unfair, I developed a passion for social justice and the equality of both boys and girls. At that time, however, I could not advocate for equality simply because I was in the same cage – full of limitations. One Child at a Time was my rescue, and my life has never been the same.
Every day in Korogocho, I see boys who feel hopeless and worthless and who feel neglected and abandoned by society. They face a lot of challenges. Many have dropped out of school because their families cannot afford school fees. They are jobless due to lack of certificates and skills. Some earn a living at the Dandora dumpsite near Korogocho, a harsh environment that no man or woman would want to see a child in. When losing hope in life, boys become thieves, some even end up robbing with violence. Consequently, people have died prematurely. Several residents have been stabbed to death while resisting being robbed. Boys who do such crimes are shot to death by security agents. Some boys have lost their lives as early as 14 or 15 years.
In Korogocho, both girls and boys are at risk of sexual violence. In a context of insecurity and crime, alcohol and drug abuse are high. Girls are raped by gangs and boys who have nothing to lose, like those living on the streets of Korogocho. Adult women with money lure boys into sexual relationships. Boys must show up when the women need them. I think that this is violence, just like (transactional) sex with girls is violence. Transactional sex puts boys at risk of sexually transmitted infections, mental health problems, like depression (xanax), and premature death. Therefore, adults having sex with minors need to be held accountable.
When I see the boys, who have lost sense of direction and hope, I ask myself, “have they been forgotten in the name of women empowerment?”
I believe in the empowerment of boys and girls. How will boys and men in the future understand or talk about the empowerment of girls and women if they lack the necessary education and awareness? I want to make it clear that the gains of empowering adolescent girls and young women could be meaningless if boys are not included. Young people in Korogocho tend to marry within Korogocho, Therefore, the same boys who are now left in the street will be the ones who will marry these empowered girls when they are women. How will they reason together? How will they solve problems, make plans? Will men feel inferior and insecure? Will they listen and seek clarifications? Or will they continue to use violence to control their wives? In short, can we eradicate violence against girls and women without involving boys and men?
To prevent HIV infections, the DREAMS programme educates adolescent girls and young women on safe sex. In the absence of sex education in Kenyan schools, this is commendable. I ask myself, however, how girls in Korogocho one day will be in a position to negotiate safe sex or safely tell a partner when they do not feel like having sex when boys are also educated in the same way. I hear of broken relationships and marriages in Korogocho due to misunderstanding, conflict, and violence when disempowered husbands wake up only to get some alcohol and leave the responsibility to provide and care for the family to their wives. I do not only feel that boys in Korogocho are left behind, but also that the task of educating and enlightening these boys on relationship issues is in fact left to the girls who will later date them.
DREAMS helps adolescent girls and young women in Korogocho who face challenges like school dropout, transactional sex, gender-based violence and early pregnancy. They attend secondary and primary schools due to contributions to their school fees. They benefit from different educational activities like social asset building, financial capability, entrepreneurship skills, and health education, as well as mentoring and HIV testing, counselling, prevention, and medication. I thank LVCT Health for these amazing services and results. However, the risk of gender-based violence and HIV will persist if only half of the young people are educated and empowered.
Through One Child at a Time, LVCT Health has taught me essential life skills. I have learned to take responsibility for myself and my life. I am grateful for the opportunity and the LVCT staff who have been by my side. Success is the result of teamwork and personal commitment. After Form four, I worked as a watchman at night to raise my school fees. I passed my course in electrical and electronic technology with flying colours and graduated in 2018 as the best in class. My plan is to undertake a leadership and resource management course as I am committed to use my talent and skills to work for equality in my community and country.
While I am grateful for the opportunity that I have had, I see that other boys in my neighbourhood remain vulnerable. They lack life skills and vocational skills. They lack support and opportunities. Every child deserves a chance – boys and girls everywhere. While I dream of a healthy community where people understand, support, and empower each other, I strongly believe that every child in Korogocho needs a DREAMS project.