Alfabeto and Belmira are part of a small team of activists powering the SMS BIZ/U-Report Mozambique’s counselling service for adolescents and young people. Alfabeto joined the team 6 months ago and Belmira has been providing counselling services with U-Report for a year. Each day, the team responds to hundreds of text messages and provide information on a variety of issues, such as HIV/AIDS prevention, sexual and reproductive health, early marriage or violence against children.
Both Alfabeto and Belmira see the potential on how this service can improve and change children’s lives for the better. “This is our opportunity to help make things better,” says 25-year-old Belmira. “This is our way to slowly change the world.”
“For me, it’s the opportunity to positively influence someone’s life,” says Alfabeto, aged 20. “It’s the feeling that the information I provide will one day be able to help someone to protect themselves and make a better choice. And that is a great feeling.”
This is the essence of the SMS Biz / U-Report Mozambique programme, which is part of the national strategy called Geração Biz (Biz Generation).
Every day, in the NGO “Coalizao” office there are about 24 counsellors that take morning and afternoon shifts to answer all questions asked by the Mozambican youth. Alfabeto and Belmira are just two of the volunteers at the Coalizao NGO (UNICEF Mozambique’s partner in this initiative). Both started their journey of campaigning for social change in their early teens, attending activist led events, lectures, and workshops in their schools.
“Who would you ask about these things? Your teachers don’t talk about it, and you aren’t going to ask your parents about sexuality!” says Alfabeto.
As more and more people own mobile phones – wherein thousands of SMS’s are being exchanged every second, UNICEF’s U-Report platform in Mozambique created the opportunity to connect these activists with over 57,000 registered users.
“Before we’d go in brigades, door to door. Now we have potential to reach more,” Belmira tells me.
“It’s not as good as the face to face counselling,” adds Alfabeto. “But on the other hand, this programme allows much more privacy and anonymity and so we have more people asking questions that they’d feel embarrassed to ask about to someone else.”
Additionally, the SMS BIZ/U-Report Mozambique’s counselling service is totally anonymous so neither Alfabeto nor Belmira can identify the people they engage with and vice versa. “Sometimes people even ask us if they can meet us, but we always say no to preserve the integrity of the service,” says Alfabeto.
During the interview, I ask Alfabeto and Belmira, what was the hardest question they were ever asked, but as they read and reply to many questions and messages, they shared that it’s hard to single out one. However, they highlighted the importance of the “cases”. I asked immediately what are the “cases” they refer to.
“It’s when we receive sensitive information or information that tells us someone is at risk,” Belmira says. “For example, when we receive an SMS about sexual abuse or violence against our users, we start a “case” file so we can track and follow-up with them through SMS.This way we can direct the person to the closest service, like the nearby health center, the police or the child helpline.” ”
But these are very specific examples. The majority of the SMS’s exchanged involves questions around sexual and reproductive health, HIV/AIDS and STI’s and relationships. It is something you can wait for as long as you want until you feel confident that you want to do it.
SMS Biz / U-Report has been growing quickly and in one year over 57,000 young Mozambicans have already registered. As for me, I believe that engaged volunteers like Belmira and Alfabeto are the ones who drive this platform, and who can help positively change the lives of children and adolescents throughout Mozambique.
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