Using social media to promote sexual and reproductive health and rights

Shobha Shukla - CNS
Social media is an effective means to promote broader public discourse on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) by translating technical information into forms that are easily understood by a young audience globally, thus educating them about SRHR issues and, more importantly, correct the misinformation - taboos, stigma and superstition, including religious extremism - that negates SRHR. It is a versatile tool treating people as agents of social change and not mere numbers.At the 7th Asia Pacific Conference on Reproductive and Sexual Health and Rights (7th APCRSHR) held recently in Manila, experiences of Philippines, India, Cambodia and Pakistan on the relevance of social media in engaging youth for meaningful dialogues on SRHR were discussed at length.

Animated films shared on YouTube; Facebook pages dedicated to SRHR information; internet and computer based educational programmes—all have proved effective in disseminating correct knowledge and information.

7th APCRSHR delegates and those following the conference remotely actively participated in an online dialogue on Twitter (#7APCRSHR on Twitter), Facebook, and other platforms. "Eight tips for using Twitter around health-related events" was adapted and disseminated by Mulat Pinoy, CNS and Inis Communication at 7th APCRSHR. This brief guide provides eight simple tips to make the most of one social media platform – Twitter – around 7th APCRSHR. This guide was first prepared by @francetim (Inis Communication) and @GlobalHealthTom in collaboration with CNS and was launched at the 11th International Conference on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific. Since then it has adapted and used at various health-related events around the world.

Social media engagement can effectively expand participation and dialogue on key issues. CNS used Symplur analytics to monitor usage of the hashtag #7APCRSHR on Twitter which shows that twitter activity yielded nearly 5.5 million impressions, 5594 tweets and 433 tweeters/ participants. This is indeed interesting as the total number of delegates on-site was perhaps a little over 1,000.

Shweta Krishnan (India) of ASAP (Asia Safe Abortion Partnership) spoke about the advantage of using animated short films distributed on social media channels to lend a human face to sensitive issues, while protecting social identities. This promotes sharing of anecdotal evidence even in hostile settings. Shweta shared some horrifying statistics of Asia: 41% pregnancies are unplanned and 50% are unwanted; 28 million women seek abortions every year; there are about 10.8 million unsafe abortions, 40% of which affect women under 25 years; deaths from unsafe abortions are responsible for 13%-50% of the total maternal deaths. And yet most of the affected women find it difficult to voice their predicaments openly.

A film goes beyond numbers and puts a face to the issue by humanizing it. It lets the affected population speak for themselves and still remain anonymous---faces can be blurred, or animation can be used. Also by using voice overs and translations in multiple languages a film can be made relevant to a wider audience across the world.

400+ tweeters using #7APCRSHR
ASAP’s animated film, ‘From Unwanted Pregnancies to Safe Abortion’ shows that unsafe abortion is a public health and a human rights issue. The purpose of the film is to present an easy way to address the issue; create awareness; campaign for safe abortion access; and use it for advocacy and training in safe abortion rights. To avoid a theoretical discourse divorced from everyday lives of women, facts are presented through the story of Ms A, an ordinary Asian woman (married or unmarried and from any socioeconomic class). She is pregnant and wants an abortion. Her struggle against the social and legal barriers to safe abortion reflects those of several women in developing countries of Asia. The film not only presents the problems but also offers solutions. With correct information and support Ms A can do anything. Her victories are those of a movement for social justice that has been sweeping across the continent. Dissemination has been through YouTube /Vimeo channels, Facebook, Twitter, CDs.

Em Srey Mom (Cambodia) of Marie Stopes International Cambodia (MSIC) said that the platform provided by social media is relatively under-utilised in Cambodia and there is a lack of information on SRHR issues. There are government restrictions on social media in Cambodia but not on internet use. While 90% of the population has mobile phones and estimated Facebook users by end of 2015 are likely to be 1,420,000, very few know about Twitter. In December 2012 MSIC established its own Facebook page Knhom Samrab Nak (I am for you) to promote greater access to information on SRHR. It was designed to target 16-25 year olds and to tap the popularity of social media particularly among youth, by linking this Facebook page with its existing pregnancy options and advice phone hotline. Currently this Facebook page has over 7000 followers. The posts are in English and Khmer languages and on contraceptive options plus Q&A on myths and rumours. At least one content is posted every day.

The aim is to provide SRH information in an interactive and youth friendly format and increase awareness of its hotline to respond to demand from youth for information on SRH. In 2013, the page yielded more than 8000 calls to the Hotline. Yes, it is a time consuming process—content has to be regularly updated and monitored. Content has to be creative to keep users engaged in SRHR issues and convert users to clients.

Yasmin Mapua Tang (Philippines) of Mulat Pinoy (Awaken Filipino)—which was the official social media partner of the 7th APCRSHR-- informed that with 33 million internet users, 1.5 million broad band subscribers, 30 million Facebook users and 9.5 million Twitter users, Philippines is the 2nd top user in South East Asia. On an average, a Filipino spends 21.5 hours a week on internet. Yet young Filipinos have a growing apathy on national issues and community affairs, lack of awareness on population and development, and SRHR.

Mulat Pinoy (MP) is a project of Probe Media Foundation Inc., supported by the Philippine Centre for Population and Development. Another PMFI project Kabataan (youth) News Network was merged with MP in 2013. MP uses a combination of social media and events to teach young people, who are online and connected, about their role in society, and focusses on increasing awareness among youth, about SRHR and its relation to population and development. MP has also conducted video contests to encourage young Filipinos to share their thoughts and concerns on SRHR. These videos were broadcast online and on local TV and the winning entries were selected by public vote through SMS, Facebook and YouTube. MP takes population and development, and SRHR information from experts and gives it to the youth. It encourages young people to ask critical questions and discuss the issues that affect them, and provides a venue on social media for their creative outputs.

Saad Haroon (Pakistan), Assistant Programme Officer SRHR Education Rutgers WPF, an international NGO headquartered in Netherlands, shared his experiences on imparting comprehensive sexuality education to young people in conservative Pakistan through an internet based education curriculum.

The World Starts with Me (WSWM) is a computer based sexuality education curriculum which was introduced under the project ‘schools4life’. It is targeted at boys and girls aged 15-17 years and aims to improve their access to sexuality education through institutionalization of SRHR in the education system in private schools of Multan, Lahore, Islamabad and Quetta. It combines two goals—(i) to teach young students creative computer skills and (ii) to support the youth in decision making for responsible and safe sex behaviour by using a curriculum on SRHR as content. It is a 30 hour curriculum which provides information, knowledge and skills through lessons related to body changes, relationships, peer pressure, sexual abuse, human rights and HIV/AIDS. At least 4 teachers are trained from each school on the curriculum to implement WSWM. Some of trained teachers become Master Trainers and train other teachers.

The focus is to: attain institutionalization of SRHR in the education system in private schools of target areas; empower young people with skills and support to -- promote healthy life styles among peers and communities; make safe and informed decisions on issues concerning relationships and sexuality; deal with gender power relations; and seek quality SRHR services and information.
As of now around 15000 students have accessed information on SRHR through WSWM. Amongst 100 students surveyed 70 expressed an improvement in their current level of knowledge. One of the major challenges faced was some level of discomfort amongst girls and boys on some topics.

While social media is an efficient tool to engage the internet savvy youth on SRHR issues, it is difficult to get a deeper insight about its real impact and to monitor real engagements of users. One has to tread carefully as there could be undesirable repercussions too. Searching for the right information with use of correct hashtags, sifting grain from chaff, from a plethora of websites, blogs, and Facebook entries for the uninformed youth can be a daunting task. There should be a way to control medically unsound ideas on SRHR uploaded on the internet. While conceding that his was a lucky generation to be born in the age of internet and having unlimited access to information, a 17 years old boy at a youth centre remarked-- ‘But we do not know what is right and what is wrong. We need some guidance from elders who will not judge us but help us.’

One has to remember that only credible and accurate information sourced from reputable institutions and disseminated using social media can result in increased knowledge of sexuality among the youth and change perceptions, behaviours and attitudes. More importantly, social media is for the educated youth. What about the millions of youngsters in developing countries who do not have access to schools, let alone internet?

Shobha Shukla, Citizen News Service (CNS)
February 2014
(The author is the Managing Editor of Citizen News Service - CNS. She is a J2J Fellow of National Press Foundation (NPF) USA and received her editing training in Singapore. She has earlier worked with State Planning Institute, UP and taught physics at India's prestigious Loreto Convent. She also co-authored and edited publications on childhood TB, childhood pneumonia, Hepatitis C Virus and HIV, violence against women and girls, and MDR-TB. Email:, website: