By Luke Nozicka and Jennifer Gonzalez / Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting
When Imali Ngusale hosts social media discussions about sex and family planning, to inform people about subjects they are not exposed to at home or in school, she often uses numbers and codes to keep the conversation under wraps.
“We do this because when it goes to social media … somebody may need to find out where they can get youth friendly services — and if their parents or relatives are following them, you want to make it discreet,” Ngusale said of the online chats, which usually consist of more than 100 curious youths who use Twitter to talk about reproductive health. “It is an innovative way to be discreet but also cool.”
Ngusale, a 27-year-old social media strategist who works for the Centre for the Study of Adolescence in Nairobi, Kenya, said she has to do “some very good ground work” before each discussion, emailing people to inform them when conversations will occur and what code words will be used.
“You can create meaning through different trends,” she said.
Ngusale was one of dozens of young people at the fourth International Conference on Family Planning in Bali, Indonesia, in late January, who uses social media to better connect with and provide information to people seeking sexual education.
At the Planned Parenthood of New York City, Judith Gomez works with about 10 teenagers to create relatable online content for youths as a way to teach them about sex and their organization.
“We really need to meet young people and teenagers where they are — and in New York City, that’s online,” she said during a presentation at the conference. “An important part is that the content is created by teens, for teens.”
Gomez, a 23-year-old Dominican woman from the Bronx in New York City, said one the best way to connect teenagers to family planning is through memes and videos. She showed examples of this at the conference, which included a meme of Ash Ketchum from the Japanese animated cartoon “Pokémon,” with the caption, “Protection. I choose you!”
Another was an image of the Simpson family from the American sitcom “The Simpsons,” walking down the street with the caption, “Going to PPNYC with squad.”
“Social media is a vital source to how young people communicate,” Gomez said, adding that it is “a free or low cost way to reach out and show young people that their health is important.”
In countries where young people are not as acquainted with social media, advocates use other means of communicating to reach the general public, such as radio and television.
Desmond Nji Atanga, a young leader at Women Deliver, said in Cameroon, a country in central Africa, radio reaches the largest amount of people, especially in rural regions where some don’t have ways to learn about reproductive health.
“All we can do is to further encourage young people in the area to join social media” so they can get information quicker and easier,” Nji Atanga said.
Patrick Segawa, who founded Public Health Ambassadors Uganda, a youth-led community organization that seeks to address sexual and reproductive issues, said he tries “to provoke discussion online and discuss issues on reproductive health” through social media. His organization, which has more than 2,100 followers on Twitter and likes on Facebook combined, produces short videos and shares catchy phrases in the hopes to educate people on the Internet.
Segawa, who holds a bachelor’s degree in public health from the International Health Sciences University in Kampala, Uganda, said he met people at the conference who already knew him through various online networks. “People tend to associate your name with what you post,” he said. “So by the time you get to see them, they know your face and are like, ‘Oh … I’ve seen your posts — you do great stuff.”
As Maureen Odour, a 30-year-old young leader at Women Deliver in Kenya, put it: “A young person in the U.S. can tweet something and in Africa they can see something about it. Social media connects youth beyond the border.”
Cover Photo is of Maureen Odour, credit to authors. This story was supported by funding from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.