Young people’s approach to sex education in Uganda has been undergoing gradual change thanks to an SMS Helpline provided by SchoolNet Uganda allowing them to ask questions about sexual and reproductive health – issues that they never before dared put to authority figures.
by Pauline Bugler
SchoolNet Uganda is one of thirteen organisations implementing the Access, Services, Knowledge (ASK) Alliance and is training two teachers each from 45 secondary schools as part of a three-year ASK project that began in Kenya and Uganda in 2013. The selected teachers are, in turn, responsible for training others using the World Starts With Me (WSWM) – a computer-based, rights-based, comprehensive sexuality education programme for in- and out-of-school youth.
Under the ASK project and with financial backing from the renowned Dutch Rutgers WPF Centre of Expertise on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, SchoolNet Uganda is using several direct information channels including the SMS Helpline.
Hitherto, cultural and traditional norms and values had made teachers in Uganda feel uncomfortable about sex education in schools. Traditionally, most adults felt that sex should only be discussed when needed, e.g. before a couple marry; premarital sexual intercourse was discouraged. Young people were warned off sexual encounters for fear of contracting HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases. But youngsters in Uganda are nevertheless exposed and sexual activity before marriage is bound to happen.
Against this backdrop, teachers requested more support and that medical experts be deployed to schools to answer pupils’ questions, which had been the mainstay of SchoolNet Uganda’s approach to sex education since 2003.
However, as SchoolNet began backing more and more schools, especially in remote areas, sending experts out on the road proved a challenge. Travel expenses accounted for a vast portion of the costs and poor infrastructure meant that more time was spent travelling than in classrooms answering students’ queries.
When the experts eventually arrived at their destinations, “Their efforts did not prove effective as they found it difficult to answer SRH [Sexual and Reproductive Health] questions on the spot,” said Daniel Kakinda, Executive Director and Training Director of SchoolNet Uganda in an interview with eLearning Africa. Face-to-face interaction was sometimes awkward as young people feared their trust in the expert would be breached or that they would be judged.
Eventually in their quest for an innovative, low-cost solution, available 24-7 to people anywhere in the country and allowing experts to answer queries at any time, SchoolNet hit on the idea of an SMS helpline to target mainly youngsters in the 12-18 year age group. Cheap and economical of human resources, the SMS service has another key advantage: the messages stick around, stored on the SIM card until deleted.
Although the helpline has been up and running for only six months, signs of rewards are emerging. And the callers are not limited to those attending school. These inquisitive young people ask about relationships, pregnancy, contraception, drug abuse, psychosocial issues, drug abuse, STIs and HIV/AIDS and human rights – all at the cost of an SMS.
Questions are decoded into a web portal and assigned and answered by experts. The system also generates question-answer reports to indicate topics brought up and the SRH experts’ responses. A database of SRH questions and possible responses is being compiled automatically. Thus monitoring effectiveness and the quality of responses is easier than under the previous system.
Kakinda said: “Based on the SMS queries received, over 5,000 people have already been reached and this number is expected to continue growing as more young people who have used the SMS Helpline pass on the information to their peers.”
Although it is still difficult to assess the impact on youths, those on SchoolNet are noticeable. By eliminating all travel costs, the network can focus more on training teachers and student peer educators so that they can also handle some of the callers’ questions. Booklets on SRH have been written and instructional videos produced on SRH issues commonly asked on the helpline.
Experts and students alike no longer have to fear embarrassing face-to-face contact as that has been greatly reduced and will ultimately be eliminated in future, Kakinda said.