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. 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.
The activists see the potential this has to change 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 themself and make a better choice. And that is a great feeling.”
This is the essence of the SMS Biz / U-Report Mozambique, part of a national strategy called Geração Biz (Biz Generation). The name resembles ‘busy generation’, and busy is the best word to characterize the activists that power the U-Report Mozambique counselling service.
In the NGO “Coalizao” office every day 24 counsellors take morning and afternoon shifts to answer all queries of Mozambican youth. Alfabeto and Belmira are two volunteers at the Coalizao NGO, UNICEF Mozambique partner in this initiative. Both started their activist journey in their early teens, attending activist led events, lectures and workshops in their schools. This is how they accessed information and counselling that they would not otherwise have been able to access.
“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.
Fast forward 10 years and mobile phones are everywhere, and thousands of SMS’s are being exchanged every second. This is where UNICEF’s U-Report platform created the opportunity to connect these activists with an audience that is now over 57,000 registered users.
“Before we’d go in brigades, door to door. Now we have potential to reach many more,” Belmira tells me.
“It’s not as good as the face to face counselling,” adds Alfabeto. “But on the other hand this strategy guarantees much more privacy and anonymity and so we have many more people asking questions that they’d feel embarrassed to ask about.”
The service is totally anonymous so neither Alfabeto nor Belmira can identify the people they engage with. Reciprocally they can’t be identified by their users. “Sometimes people even ask us if they can meet us, but we always say no to preserve the integrity of the service,” says Alfabeto.
Alfabeto joined the team approximately 6 months ago and Belmira has already been providing counselling services utilising U-Report for a year. I ask about the hardest question they ever had, but their experience is now vast, so it’s hard to single out one message from thousands they’ve read and replied to. Pensive about this question, they highlight the importance of the “cases”.
I immediately ask 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 then we open a case file so we can track and follow-up with the SMS exchange. This way we can re-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.
SMS Biz / U-Report has been growing quickly and in one year over 57,000 young Mozambicans have already registered. As for me, there is little doubt that with engaged volunteers like Belmira and Alfabeto driving this platform, positive change will come for thousands of adolescents throughout Mozambique.
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