It’s no secret that young people share a special relationship with social media and ICT. In fact, an ever-increasing number of individuals are growing up as digital natives, exposed to social media and ICT from their very early childhood. All over the world, young people are finding new and creative ways to use the technologies that are available to them to connect with one another and to access the information, the tools and the services that they need to be and to remain healthy.
The representatives of Zimbabwe Young Positives are no exception to the rule. As a member of the group African Young Positives (AY+), a regional network for and by young people who are living with HIV/AIDS in Africa, Zimbabwe Young Positives works with a variety of partners in Zimbabwe to develop projects and interventions for youth, by youth. As a truly reciprocal relationship, the work of Zimbabwe Young Positives and of the other groups like it in the Sub-Saharan region, is supported by AY+ and feeds into the activities of the regional network.
Like their counterparts in all the other areas of the world, members of Zimbabwe Young Positives and AY+ have harnessed the power of social media and ICT to mobilize, inform and empower their peers:
Annah Sango-Page, who is Program Assistant for Zimbabwe Young Positives and Advocacy Officer at AY+ notes that “most of the time, as youth organizations, we don’t have enough money to meet in person due to little or no funding.” This hasn’t deterred AY+ from undertaking important work in 23 countries across the African continent to promote sustainable community development interventions for and by young people.
The members of AY+ use a range of platforms, including Whatsapp, Webex and Skype, to meet, to do their work and to link up with national networks of people living with HIV. The AY+ website allows young people to register and access an online portal, where they can receive information and mentorship from their peers. AY+ is also working to develop MINDS UP©, an app for and by young people to provide them with information about HIV, tuberculosis and sexual and reproductive health. The app will be structured on the five tenets of the daily life of a young person: movement, health, lifestyle, socialization and education. The work that is being done in Zimbabwe is helping to lay the foundations for the development of an app that will be relevant to all the members of AY+, while recognizing the differences in access to treatment and services, and the linguistic and cultural variations that exist between and even within the different member countries.
When it comes to health and sexuality, Annah notes that “young people are shy to ask questions, or they may not really know where to go to ask questions.” Recognizing this reality, Zimbabwe Young Positives collaborates with other relevant organisations to offer young people accessible platforms that are free of coercion, stigma and discrimination, including U-Report Zimbabwe. Inspired by a project first implemented in Uganda, this free SMS service not only answers young people’s questions, but it actively implicates them in tracking and reporting on what is happening in their country.
After signing up to this service by texting a toll-free number, young people become registered “U-Reporters.” They are invited to answer polls and to send in reports of medication shortages, sexual assaults and other human rights violations. Individually and collectively, U-Reporters contribute to holding their leaders accountable to their commitments and their promises.
In the process of reporting on their experiences, young people are also linked to the care and services that they require. For example, a young person can send an SMS to U-Report Zimbabwe to indicate that they have run out of ARVs. They will receive a prompt reply notifying them of the closest free clinic where they can access medication. If the individual doesn’t have the travel funds required to make it to the clinic, U-Report can help them access some emergency funding available through Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Health, using one of the mobile apps that facilitate money transfers within the country. Because they act as an intermediary between the person and the Ministry of Health, the process of transferring funds can be a bit lengthy at times. Moving forward, it is hoped that U-Report Zimbabwe will be able to create a fund that it can administer directly to help young people access the services they need.
This point speaks to a broader reality in Zimbabwe, and elsewhere in the world, whereby young people are often limited in the resources that are available to them. Zimbabwe Young Positives is currently working on developing an app similar to the U-Report model, which would allow its users to access information on sexual and reproductive health, to program medication reminders and to find the services that are closest to them. Because in Zimbabwe, not all young people have access to a phone, let alone a smart phone and/or Wi-Fi, the app is being developed to suit different grades of technology, to make it accessible to as broad an audience as possible. The app will also be easy to navigate, to ensure that it responds to varying degrees of technological comfort and ability on the part of its users.
In addition to accessible technology, when asked what is required to make an intervention “youth-friendly,” Annah is quick to point out the importance of using language that young people can understand. Even when relaying technical or scientific knowledge, it is important to make this information accessible by using words that young people will understand and, whenever possible, by making definitions and lexicons easily available through the technologies themselves.
In the multilingual context of Zimbabwe, this also means that youth must be able to access information in English, Shona or Ndebele, the most widely spoken languages in the country. This remains a key consideration in the development of the app version of U-Report – from the get-go, they are working on creating a flexible model that can easily be translated into multiple languages. The piloting of the app in Zimbabwe will also inform the development of MINDS UP© at the pan-African level, so building a structure that is flexible will facilitate the process of adapting the information to the languages and realities of neighboring countries.
Social media and ICT are a two-way communication street, so in addition to “speaking” the language of young people, interventions also need to understand their language. Social media and ICT are a two-way communication street, so in addition to “speaking” the language of young people, interventions also need to understand their language. And who better to communicate with youth than young people themselves? The U-Report model uses youth in the community as its counsellors – young people are trained and provided with the tools they require to respond to their peers in their own words. Moving forward in the development of the app, Zimbabwe Young Positive will continue to espouse this for-youth-by-youth model, by training young people and providing them with the technology they require to be counsellors and role-models to their peers.