Addressing Stigma through a Theatre-Based Program in Western Kenya

DSC_0001Eleeyah Uri
MPH Candidate, Dalla Lana School of Public Health


Eldoret is a fast-growing city located in Kenya. With an expanding urban center, the prevalence of street-connected youth is also growing. It is estimated that there are currently 1,900 street-connected youth living in Eldoret. The streets play a critical role in the lives of street-connected youth who often find themselves in situations that violate their basic human rights. Street-connected youth turn to spending their days and nights on the streets as a method of survival, as many have previously endured abuse, extreme poverty and serious family conflict. Living and working on the streets, street-connected youth often face stigma and discrimination from institutional authorities, including healthcare providers. This hinders their ability to access healthcare, which consequently affects their overall health and well-being. Street-connected youth are holders of human rights who have the right to participate in decisions affecting them. Theatre has been identified as a tool that can empower street-connected youth to share their experiences when trying to access healthcare and bring about change.

Street-Connected Youth

Many street-connected youth in Eldoret end up living and working on the streets due to a variety of factors including, lack of food, poverty, large households, being unwanted from stepparents, parental abuse, emotional neglect and a desire for independence. Furthermore, street-connected youth may lack one or both parents or have polygynous fathers. With a lack of family support, street-connected youth are left extremely vulnerable, with their social, mental and physical needs unmet. With the harsh conditions of surviving on the streets, including abuse, exploitation and minimal food, street-connected youth often turn to unsafe practices, such as sniffing glue, to cope with their realities.Finding a dealer who supplies this glue is not difficult, as glue is a legal substance in Kenya. As a result of all these factors, street-connected youth carry a disproportionate burden of morbidities in the areas of substance use, infectious diseases, mental health and sexual health.

Street-Connected Youth and Access to Care

A major issue that street-connected youth currently face is accessing healthcare services. Healthcare providers often stigmatize and discriminate against street-connected youth who try to gain admission to public hospitals for care. Healthcare providers sometimes have preconceived notions of street-connected youth in that they are delinquents who require rehabilitation to improve deviant behaviours. Additionally, street-connected youth who repeatedly get infected with sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are those who are particularly discriminated against.

Being turned away from one hospital clinic to the next, often results in street-connected youth being denied their right to access healthcare. It is imperative that this issue is resolved so that street-connected youth reduce their risk of developing chronic diseases and improve their overall quality of life.

Popular Theatre as a Social Intervention Strategy

Popular theatre is a participatory method that speaks to individuals in their own language and deals with issues that are relevant to them. It has been previously used to disseminate information and initiate community engagement on health and social justice issues. Theatre for Development is an example of a successful project that uses theatre to initiate community engagement and promote civic dialogue within communities in order to stimulate social debates. By providing insight into others’ point of view, theatre can also function as a bridge to understanding among members in a community.

This method encourages the solidarity of all people in a given community through shared experiences, provided by realistic, critical and free popular theatre. Popular theatre is realistic in that it demonstrates the real social causes of the issues faced by the community and dynamically presents existing realities. It is also critical in the sense that popular theatre aims to create a critical consciousness in those performing and those watching. Lastly, popular theatre is free in that the method is open to continual changes and the integration of new components.

Bridging the Gap Between Healthcare Providers and Street-Connected Youth

Theatre has been proven to be a cheap and accessible oral medium that includes people of all social classes. This is especially true for those who are often left out from the development of other activities as a result of their illiteracy or lack of understanding. Marginalized and vulnerable populations are often forgotten or left out of planning stages of programs that directly affect them. Street-connected youth must be able to involve themselves in matters that directly affect them and be empowered to voice their rights. With that being said, front-line workers and street-connected youth in Eldoret have identified the need for addressing the stigma and discrimination that street-connected youth face from healthcare providers and found theatre to be a promising tool to do so. I will be partnering with street-connected youth, social workers, healthcare providers and community volunteers, in partnership with Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital (MTRH) and the Academic Model Providing Access to Health Care (AMPATH), to pilot a theatre program for street-connected youth and healthcare providers in Eldoret, Kenya. Various issues that street-connected youth face while trying access healthcare will be performed in front of a targeted audience, who are then encouraged to intervene and come up with strategies to resolve these issues.There will also be scenes about how healthcare providers experience street-connected youth so that the issue is two-sided. This will be organized by and for street-connected youth and healthcare providers. The aim of this project will be to help both groups within the community strengthen their unity towards a common vision, one of which healthcare is accessible to all street-connected youth. The collective experience of creating a project together creates the context for cooperation and the possibility for mutual inspirations or peer learning.

The funds for this project are very minimal. Hence, I am looking to raise $3000 in order to cover the costs associated with implementing the project. These costs include providing food, clothing and transportation for street-connect youth participating in the project on a weekly basis; community mobilization; rental of a space, chairs and a stage for the final performance; & printing costs for flyers and other materials.

If you are interested in donating, please visit the project’s Go Fund Me page, to assist with costs related to this initiative. Your donation can positively impact the lives of street-connected youth living in Eldoret, Kenya.