By Jane Otai, Jhpiego
For pregnant women living in the slums of Nairobi, walking to the health facility to give birth can be a dangerous endeavor. The dim, narrow lanes hide real dangers. It’s not unusual for these women in labor to be assaulted and robbed by neighborhood youth as they travel.
For young men like Dedun and Song, pregnant women were easy targets because they carried money they would need at the facility and would give it up without much of a struggle.
As a result of these dangers, more women began opting to stay home. In slums like Korogocho, Mathare and Viwandani, 706 per 100,000 mothers (in 2003-2005) and 39.2 per 1,000 babies die each year due to complications at childbirth—complications that often can be handled by skilled care in a facility, but not during a home birth.
Keeping youth out of trouble has been a constant concern since I began working with Jhpiego—an international health nonprofit—in 2009. In the slums, one-quarter of the population is under age 24. But where some saw a problem, I saw opportunity.
Confronting the Robbers
I remember the first community meeting I attended. Mothers who had been afraid to go to the health facility for fear of being attacked voiced their concerns to the teenagers and young men attending the dialogue session that evening.
The youth quickly admitted to their actions and apologized. But, they said, the community must also understand that they had families to take care of and no jobs.
“From the time I was 13 years old, I had learned to take care of myself through crime. I had to commit crimes to make money. The only way you can get respect and make a living in this slum is by having money,” said Song, a young slum resident.
Drugs, alcohol and prostitution are rampant in their slum communities—ways of coping with their hardships. Many of the youth admitted they turned to crimes like mugging or robbing factories and banks to survive.
“When I was using drugs, inhalers, you feel like you are invincible. Then you can rob,” said Dedun.
From Crime to Small Business
But how could this cycle be broken? Jhpiego brainstormed a new course of action to help the whole community. We encouraged the youth to form groups according to their home villages and pitch business ideas. “Come up with a business idea and pitch it,” we told them. “Jhpiego will support you as you carry out your plan.”
More than 10 groups formed with ideas including selling soap to sell to factories and schools in the community, grinding plastics into pellets to sell to industries, collecting household garbage, distributing water to the community for a fee, building community pay toilets and bathrooms—even making sandals and jewelry from trash.
It was abundantly clear from the proposals that youth in these slums had the potential to improve their communities if given the opportunity. With Jhpiego’s support, the youth participated in a five-day training on business management before their business proposals received funding.
Today, over 500 youth in the slums of Korogocho, Mathare and Viwandani have embraced these businesses and turned their lives around!
Youth are making money from their business ventures. Some have bought motorbikes, which they use to transport pregnant women to the facilities so they can give birth safely. On average, more than 100 women each month use this service in Korogocho—women who would have feared for their lives years ago walking through the slums to their health facility.
Other youth have invested in a pig-raising business. From the garbage collected, they are able to sort the food items and feed their pigs, which they then sell at a profit. Original jewelry and sandals are sold in markets both locally and internationally.
In 2015, these young entrepreneurs generated $32,037 in sales and reinvested $20,630 into their businesses, lives, and communities, giving them a profit of $11,407. This money has supported their families. They’ve learned that they can live decently by working hard. Many of them have decided to go back to school and improve their education to meet required job market qualifications.
Today, Song and Dedun are youth group leaders and guide others to find employment and avoid a life of crime.
“If it wasn’t for this program, I don’t know where youth could be… I don’t know where I would be,” said Dedun. “Jhpiego really means a lot to us as a community. They give us the support we don’t get from anyone else.”
The rule of law is, of course, essential. We also find in such contexts, harsh punishments are rarely the solution in the face of unemployment and related poverty. A better way to curb crime and invest in real solutions is to give people opportunities to realize their dreams—to give them hope for their children and enable them to live harmoniously with their neighbors. This makes the community safer for everyone, including pregnant women, who can then more safely bring the next generation into a brighter, healthier world.
Jane Otai is an urban health specialist in Kenya for Jhpiego, an international health non-profit and affiliate of Johns Hopkins University. Her work on this project was supported by the Waterloo Foundation.