A few months ago we announced that we had awarded a grant to OneWorld, an organisation dedicated to pioneering internet and mobile phone applications, which the world’s poorest people can use to improve their life opportunities, and which help people everywhere understand global problems – and do something about them. The grant was to help OneWorld use Facebook to provide personalised, confidential advice on sex and relationships to young people in Nigeria and Senegal. Six months on, we’ve received their first progress report, which explains better than we ever could the challenges they’ve faced and overcome. As the report makes clear, however, the problem they are aiming to tackle is huge:
Across Africa, millions of young people are more vulnerable than they need to be to sexual and reproductive health concerns, largely because they lack the answers they need to make positive decisions in their personal lives. In Nigeria and Senegal, as in many other countries, societal taboos have made it nearly impossible for most young people to talk freely to their parents, teachers, or even to health care providers about sexuality, HIV/AIDS, pregnancy, their bodies, and other sensitive personal health issues.
But the lack of information has not kept young Nigerians and Senegalese from experimenting with sex, and the consequences are clear. HIV/AIDS rates are high and growing. Other sexually transmitted diseases and complications are destroying lives and communities just as thoroughly. Maternal mortality is among the highest in the world – often because women become pregnant long before they are physically or emotionally mature enough, and then don’t know how to care for themselves and their babies during pregnancy. And perhaps worst of all, young women are not getting the support they need to speak up for their rights within sexual relationships and young boys are not learning to interact with girls in a spirit of equal dignity, ensuring that the downward spiral of health outcomes continues.
In 2006, OneWorld launched an innovative initiative to help young people overcome these barriers. An SMS-based question-and-answer service has connected over 200,000 young people in Nigeria to trained counsellors who answer their questions about sex, relationships, their bodies, and more. A similar service came online in Senegal in 2010, and over 80,000 questions have been asked and answered in the 12 months since the public launch. Young people now have a space to get accurate, non-judgmental, and timely answers, in complete anonymity. An eLearning platform extended this information via a series of interactive lessons narrated by virtual peer educators, for those with computer access at school or at home.
But in the years since these pioneering SMS and eLearning services launched, young people across Africa have begun to use a new communication tool in droves – Facebook. It is here that the youth of Africa are now gathering, exchanging stories and discussing the issues that matter to them. Through a grant from the Indigo Trust, OneWorld has begun the process of extending the mobile counselling services (MyQ and MyA) available to young people in Senegal and Nigeria to the Facebook platform, providing accurate and non-judgemental information – and a link into the larger eLearning platform – via the online tool they like best.
In the months since the grant application was submitted, OneWorld has launched activities in Morocco and prepared for the launch of activities in Mali, and so it was decided that the Facebook applications being designed for Nigeria and Senegal would ultimately be deployed for users in these countries as well.
A series of focus groups were held in Morocco, Mali, and Nigeria to clarify the priorities of young social media users. While these surveys confirmed the overwhelming interest among young people to use a Facebook service intended to provide information about sexual and reproductive health, it also became clear that the retention of one’s privacy would be of the utmost importance when dealing with these sensitive subjects.
As a result of the focus group findings, it was determined that the initial Facebook deployments should provide users a gateway to access the key aspects of the sexual and reproductive health service – asking their questions and receiving answers from trained counsellors, diving deeper into the issues with the virtual peer educators in the eLearning platform, and finding out where they can get help near them using OneWorld’s online maps – while retaining their anonymity. All of these aspects of the project have been integrated into the Facebook page: