Lessons from the Field
Interview with Martha Sunda, Executive Director of Childline Kenya
Posted on 15th of December 2021 by Elora Fernandes
Since its launch, the Responsible Data for Children (RD4C) initiative has studied the use of data for and about children in humanitarian settings to offer insights on promising, responsible data practice.
Childline Kenya, one of the first of these studies to be published, remains today as an important example of responsible data practices. To understand how Childline Kenya has changed since we published our case study, we interviewed Martha Sunda, Executive Director of Childline Kenya. The conversation, summarized below, touched on how Childline operates, the challenges and opportunities it faces, and potential lessons that could help other practitioners in handling children’s data responsibly.
What is Childline Kenya and what data is involved in it?
Childline Kenya is an NGO that operates a national child helpline service. It works closely with the Government of Kenya as its strategic partner, as well as with other stakeholders, to provide support to children subjected to any kind of violence or neglect. The organization offers counseling, psychotherapy, play and art therapy, family therapy and legal support. It also provides linkage to other child protection service providers for additional support. .
According to Martha, this programming is based on three pillars. The first one is a preventive approach related to creating awareness of child protection and everybody’s role in protecting children. The second one is focused on the importance of accessing child protection services in the fastest way possible. This is done by providing the helpline channels as well as by informing the public about other ways to seek support, such as the Children’s Office or the Police. Finally the third pillar revolves around response to reported concerns.
While people can request support on these three pillars through various platforms including WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and email, a central part of its outreach is a toll-free telephone service. This service is available from anywhere in Kenya twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. This is important to provide people with a variety of platforms they can use, depending on which one they feel most comfortable with or have access to.
More than reporting the issue, Childline Kenya seeks to solve it.
“Whenever we have an opportunity we keep creating awareness on the issue.”
“Our goal is to have these cases that are reported responded to efficiently and effectively in the best interest of the child. [...] Therefore, the data that we get to [...] [guide] our work is around the child themselves. What are the safeguarding or protection issues that they have? Who has perpetrated them? Are there any caregivers in the scenario, [...] any other siblings? Do these children go to school now or not? Are there any developmental issues that we need to take note of [...]?”
“We are also able to determine what else needs to be done, or whether we need to fast track some things. [...] So that also helps to determine what needs to be done to be able to assist this child in the best way possible.”
She added that the organization makes sure that the data processed by them is restricted to the minimum necessary to help the child or for advocacy and programming purposes.
What are the most serious challenges you face in promoting responsible use of data related to the calls you receive through your helpline?
As the helpline service is co-managed by Childline Kenya and the Government of Kenya, Martha explained that the responsibility over the data processed is also shared. In this sense, Childline Kenya is not able to control how the government uses the data and vice versa.
She argued that can be limiting especially in cases where either partner feels that a certain level of detail should not have been released. Even though this situation is rare, Martha stated that, “it remains a risk [...] that needs to be sorted out. We have tried to mitigate [that], so in the system we know who exactly is [...] in there at what level and we also keep an audit trail in the helpline system. So in case someone has edited something or downloaded something we have the audit trail and we are therefore able to hold them responsible.”
She expanded on this point by explaining several challenges. First, she noted that the linkage to the government information system also creates a problem related to feedback. When the case is referred to this governmental system, the NGO has to request information about the solution of the case manually, as there are only a few cases where this information is given proactively.
Another challenge relates to how much information should be released to partners when a child is being referred to them or when the media is covering a case. She argued that there was difficulty in finding the balance between providing the service in the best way possible without overexposing the child or breaching confidentiality. Children and families could also put themselves at risk as they might reveal more information than they should when they are reached out by the media.
Finally, she described the issue of duplicate data, something already described in the “RD4C Case Study: Childline Kenya.” According to Martha, data duplication is something over which Childline Kenya has little control since a child or their family might report the case to various offices when they feel their expectations were not met: “When you start gathering this data and putting it together you find reports of the same child from three different entities.” Though this is not the rule, it is important to consider a margin of error when dealing with the data produced by the service.
What are the most important factors that have enabled your success thus far and how will you promote the responsible use of data for children going forward?
Martha explained that the service is very successful because they try to create awareness of the importance of data security with all the stakeholders involved. This awareness raising involves children and their families, the media and other stakeholders who are often not included in the child protection community.
“We dont assume that they would know things that are part of child safeguarding so whenever we have an opportunity we keep creating awareness on the issue,” Martha said.
She also emphasized the importance of good practices being applied internally to lead by example. Childline Kenya makes sure that it follows data protection guidelines and standards locally and globally. Other partner organizations have gone to Kenya to learn what the institution is doing to replicate Childline Kenya’s work in their own countries.
Martha also attributed Childline’s success to the involvement of partners. When partnering with other institutions, Childline Kenya requires that they sign a safeguarding policy if they do not have their own so as to commit to protecting children under Childline Kenya’s standards.
Martha emphasizes that this policy was not simply checking a box. Rather, partnership is a process in which the institution actually demonstrates an understanding of the importance of these policies, providing instruction for an informed decision. She noted the engagement with the government was formalized by a memorandum of understanding that holds both of them responsible.
What are the major changes or new policies and processes that have been implemented since the development of the case study?
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Martha stated that remote access to the helpline service was made available to staff so that they could work from home. This presented new challenges related to data protection as the institution focused on the process of setting up the remote access.
In order to access the platform, a specific device had to be configured and a licence installed. This device could not be shared with other people and other applications could not be accessed while the Childline system was in use. This work was important to protect the data from external parties and from malicious softwares.
Childline Kenya still faces some challenges since the case study development, such as finding a balance in sharing data about a case with partners and the media, data duplication, and shared responsibilities with the government. However, it is clear that the initiative's success is intrinsically related to the responsible data handling practices it has been implementing. Especially in situations where Childline Kenya’s service is increasingly needed, such as during the COVID-19 pandemic, these practices allow the most vulnerable children in the country to have their immediate needs met while still having their data handled responsibly.
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