From dealing with harassment to frank advice about STIs, these female app developers are providing vital, candid knowledge
[A]ccurate information about sex and healthy relationships leads to greater gender equality worldwide, a report by the UN’s world heritage body Unesco found. It also leads to better sexual health, as well as less sexually transmitted infections, HIV and unintended pregnancies.
Yet many young people still don’t get the accurate information they need. Technology is one way to bring it to them. The revised international technical guidance on sexuality education, released by Unesco in January, said new technology offers “rich opportunities” to reach young people – if it’s used intelligently.
These women, from around the world, are working hard to found apps and use new technology to educate communities on sexual health.
Ruth Nabembezi, 22, founder of Ask Without Shame
When Nabembezi was just 16 years old, her older sister Pamela, who was 23, became very thin, started losing her hair and developed a skin rash. She was HIV positive, but a lack of awareness of the virus and Aids meant she didn’t get medical treatment straight away. “She was taken to a witch doctor to be cleansed of demons,” Nabembezi says. When she eventually did get taken to hospital, it was too late and she died there.
Since then, Nabembezi has wanted to help people access accurate information about sexual health. “In Uganda, anything related to sexuality is a taboo,” she says. Last year the government even branded better sex education an “erosion of morals”. Young people have to find their own information from peers, Nabembezi says. As a result, many end up believing harmful myths, such as if you sleep with a virgin, you can’t catch HIV.
Nabembezi created Ask Without Shame after joining a Social Innovation Academy when she finished school, because she wanted to change things. The mobile app, free phone line and text message service provide information about sex to young people through their phones. Questions are answered by doctors, nurses and counsellors.
The app has more than 60,000 users, mostly from Uganda and other African countries. But Nabembezi wants more. “I’d like to see it in every country in the world,” she says.
Beverly Chogo, 23, founder of Sophie Bot
Chogo created Sophie Bot in 2016 after watching her friend go through a traumatic abortion in Kenya. “It led to a lot of bleeding and abdominal pain,” Chogo says. At the time, Chogo didn’t understand what was happening to her friend. “It was a lot of trauma that she wasn’t prepared for,” Chogo says. “From that moment on I wanted to do something.”
And so the Sophie Bot was born. Chogo created the artificial intelligence (AI) Sophie Bot along with a team of three others whom she met at university in Kenya. Unsafe abortion is a major public health crisis in the country and a leading cause of preventable death and illness among women and girls. Young people can ask the Sophie Bot questions about anything, from STIs to family planning and it gives automated responses. Chogo says some people have even asked how to make sex more kinky or pleasurable, although she points out that’s not what it was originally set up for. The bot then gives automated responses.
Sex is still taboo in many African communities and so technology has been “very instrumental,” Chogo says. “Almost everyone has a smartphone.” The Sophie Bot is on WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and Telegram messenger. It’s had over 1,500 downloads so far, but “now we want to reach more people,” Chogo says. “The sky’s the limit.”
Heather Corinna, 47, founder of Scarleteen
US-born Corinna first set up the Scarleteen website, a platform which provides information about sex and relationships for young people, in 1998. Corinna – who identifies as non-binary and uses the “they” pronoun – had no idea it would become their second job. For the next year, Corinna taught a class of kindergarten children during the day – and then taught a “global online classroom” about sex during the evenings.
It all started when Corinna uploaded fiction about women’s sexuality online. Unexpectedly, they started to get letters from young women asking basic questions about sex. There wasn’t a resource for Corinna to direct them to, so they set up their own: Scarleteen. The website was one of the first of its kind and published questions, along with Corinna’s empathetic responses. “People wrote me long letters, so I wrote them back,” Corinna says.
It wasn’t easy and Corinna was stalked and harassed online, just for talking to young people about the topic of sexuality – but they didn’t give up. “I’m rebellious,” Corinna says. “When people give me grief I go in hard.” Twenty years later, Corinna now runs Scarleteen with a team of global volunteers.
Mia Davis, 25, founder of Tabu
Davis grew up in the American midwest and had an abstinence-based religious education that was “pretty limited” when it came to sexuality. As a result, she was ashamed of her body. “I was always learning from a boyfriend,” the Stanford University graduate says, “but now I realise they didn’t know what they were talking about either.”
So in 2016, the user-experience designer set-up Tabu. One thing that stands out is its colourful design. “A lot of sexual health content can either be too in your face, or is just images that you wouldn’t want anyone to see,” Davis says. “So instead we wanted it to be really fresh and to make it pop.”
Movements like #MeToo, where people have come forward about harassment, have highlighted the need for better sex and relationship education, Davies says. And advances in mobile technology mean that it’s more possible than ever to provide it. “There’s a lot of unlearning to do,” she says. “And it’s coming to a head now.”
Brianna Rader, 26, founder of Juicebox
Rader is about to launch a new version of Juicebox, an app that provides personalised coaching for sex and relationships through your phone. She has been passionate about sex education for years, even getting condemned by lawmakers in the state of Tennessee for running a series of sex education events called Sex Week at her university.
Attitudes towards sex education are changing. Even just a few years ago it was different, she says. But now people are more open to these conversations and are making the most of mobile and new technologies. “[Sex ed tech founders] are not just providing PDFs and booklets,” Rader says. “We are going much further than that.”
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