This article is part of the Innovation Gender Challenge blog series highlighting stories from the field of how innovations like U-Report are supporting gender opportunities and girls’ empowerment in countries. The Challenge was launched in February 2017 by UNICEF with the goal of catalyzing better results and progress for girls and boys globally.
In Mozambique, girls are taking information into their own hands – quite literally – using technology innovation.
By Zamzam Billow & Betty Chang
In a dusty courtyard of Mozambique’s Chirangano neighbourhood, Lucia, 18, clicks away at her mobile phone. Earlier in the day, she had been discussing family planning with the girls in her community and they had stumbled upon a question they didn’t know the answer to. Lucia types it in a text message, “What is ART? Is it true that it cures people with AIDS?” and presses “Send”.
Ping. 1,500 km north in Maputo, Lucia’s question pops up on the computer screen of Ana, 21, a peer counsellor. She is one of 12 counsellors in the crowded room responding to questions sent in by young female mentors through SMS from all over the country. After consulting a dense FAQ manual in the background, Ana proceeds to reply to Lucia, “Hello friend, antiretroviral therapy, or ART, does not cure AIDS but strengthens the immune system which can prevent virus growth”.
In August 2016, the Government of Mozambique together with UNFPA, UNICEF,Coalizão and other partners launched the Action for Girls programme dubbed Rapariga Biz, with the ambitious goal of reaching 1 million vulnerable adolescent girls by 2020. Rapariga Biz trains girls through weekly “sessions” to act as mentors to other girls in their local communities on topics ranging from sexual and reproductive health to menstrual health and hygiene management.
Despite steady progress towards gender equality in Mozambique in recent years, girls and young women still face stark gender inequities, including early marriage and pregnancy, lack of access to education, and gender-based violence. The challenge lies in how to engage, educate, and empower these girls so they have access to the rights and opportunities they deserve.
A potential solution to support Rapariga Biz’s objectives is SMS BIZ, also known as U-Report, UNICEF’s free digital youth engagement tool used by over 100,000 U-Reporters nationally – 40% of whom are girls. Traditionally, the platform has been used by UNICEF Country Offices as a way to hear from youth directly, through regular polling and surveys. As part of UNICEF’s Innovation Gender Challenge, SMS BIZ is being piloted in a novel, ingenious way – equipping more than 3,000 Rapariga Biz mentors with mobile access to an SMS-based peer counsel service that supports continuous training and answers their most pressing questions and concerns. As an additional follow-up, SMS BIZ tests Rapariga mentors’ knowledge on previous training topics through polls, dubbed the “Game of Questions and Answers” with the goal of reinforcing learning and identifying knowledge gaps to focus on in future training sessions. For example, a “True or False” poll on HIV/AIDS that Lucia participated in included questions like, “True or false: The woman has the right to refuse to engage in sex if she is not comfortable”.
Wearing a blue mentor lanyard and gripping her mobile phone with pride, Lucia tells us,“I use SMS BIZ when I, or girls I mentor, want more information that hasn’t been covered in a mentor training session. I feel safe and comfortable asking my questions because it is anonymous”. Texts that Lucia and other mentors send are answered by Coalizão, a youth association of 48 volunteer peer counsellors in Maputo, including Ana, who works to respond with accuracy and speed to nearly a thousand questions a day.
On her motivation to become a peer counsellor, Ana explains, “I want to provide correct information through SMS BIZ to other young girls like myself because we often feel uncomfortable asking our parents about these issues”.
SMS BIZ has also been testing other innovative methods to engage and recruit more girls on to the platform. Just last month, pilots began for a new girl-to-girl invitation system where girl users will be able to refer their friends over mobile, encouraging other girls to join the conversation and community on SMS BIZ whether by answering polls or asking questions.
There are countless challenges and barriers that millions of girls in Mozambique face, from realizing their personal goals to a healthier, more prosperous future for all, and innovative solutions like SMS BIZ can help. For Lucia, she is applying to scholarships in hopes of attending university in the near future to become a scientist. And for Florentina — who was recruited by Lucia to Rapariga Biz after losing both parents — she excelling in fourth grade with her favourite subject being math. When asked how Rapariga Biz and innovative solutions like SMS BIZ have benefited her, Florentina looks over at Lucia with admiration: “Rapariga Biz has given me confidence, and also a sister and role model in Lucia. I want to be a girl mentor as well.”