By Swapna Majumdar
Tuesday, April 1, 2014
With quicker feedback on how fast and widely online messages are shared and which videos are popular, reproductive health advocates in projects in India and the Philippines see social media powering a spread of information, changing attitudes and behavior.
Credit: Andrionni Ribo on Flickr, under Creative Commons
MANILA, Philippines (WOMENSENEWS)--Fifteen-year-old Rita Carlos believed jumping three times after sex would prevent pregnancy because her partner had told her so. But even after jumping an extra two times just to be on the safe side, the young resident of Manila found herself pregnant.
At 53 births per 1,000 women aged between 15 and 19, the teenage pregnancy rate in the Philippines is the highest among the six major economies of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, surging by 70 percent over one decade, according to United Nations Population Fund.
A 2014 report also found the numbers of young people engaging in premarital sex went up to 32 percent in 2013 from 23 percent in 2002. Most first sexual encounters were unprotected from the risks of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.
Health activists say that lack of access to services and accurate information on reproductive and sexual health is one of the leading causes of the high teen pregnancies in the Philippines.
In Asia, 41 percent of pregnancies are unplanned and 50 percent unwanted. About 28 million women seek abortions every year. Approximately 10.8 million abortions are unsafe, with 40 percent of affected women under 25 years, according to the Asia Safe Abortion Partnership, a network of medical professionals, activists and groups working on women's right to safe abortion in 13 Asian countries.
"Deaths caused by unsafe abortions are responsible for 13-50 percent of the total maternal deaths," says Shweta Krishnan, communications and networking officer of the Abortion Partnership, based in India. "We wanted to look beyond these horrifying numbers and show how these barriers affect the quality of daily life."
Social media has emerged as an effective way to spread awareness in the Philippines with the country boasting 33 million Internet users, 1.5 million broadband subscribers, 30 million Facebook users and 9.5 million Twitter users, according to Asia Digital Marketing Yearbook 2012.
"Philippines is the second top user in Southeast Asia, sixth in Asia and 17th in the world. Filipinos spend 21.5 hours a week on the Internet," says Yasmin Tang, executive director of Probe Media Foundation, a Manila-based nonprofit that uses communication for social change. "We need to use social media as a channel to broadcast accurate information from credible sources to those in need. Sexual and reproductive health and rights in the Philippines are under constant fire, with people unaware of how to best look after themselves. Using social media to promote population, reproductive and sexual health discussions allows us to show young people that the choices they make have an impact on society."
Public health advocates like Krishnan and media practitioners like Tang, a former journalist, believe that social media is a powerful tool. Tang says that of the 517 million users of Twitter, 9.5 million are Filipinos, making it the 10th biggest country on Twitter. She gives the example of how hundreds of thousands of Filipinos used Twitter to spread critical information when there was flooding throughout the country. "If this platform can be used to mobilize rescue and disaster relief during calamities, it can be effective for reproductive and sexual health awareness," she says.
The number of times an online message is shared can help provide real-time feedback on what is working and what's not for various campaigns and projects. With faster feedback on the issues, followers and supporters are engaged in regular communication, which leads to a change in behavior and attitude.
In the Philippines, Mulat Pinoy (Awaken Filipinos) and Kabataan News Network (KNN) of the Probe Media Foundation are engaged in empowering and informing young people through social media. Supported by the Philippine Center for Population and Development, Mulat Pinoy-KNN encourages young people to share their questions and concerns through social media platforms. The group has organized video contests on population, reproductive and sexual health and rights to give young people a creative way of expressing themselves. The winning entries were broadcast online and on local TV and were selected by votes collected through SMS, Facebook and YouTube, thus strategically expanding the information band.
One in every four young people in the Philippines have sent or received sexually explicit videos through their mobile phone or the Internet, and 4 percent have directly met their sexual partners online or through text messaging, finds the Young Adult Fertility and Sexuality Survey released in 2014 by the University of the Philippines Population Institute and the Demographic Research and Development Foundation.
Mulat Pinoy has also collaborated with the Philippine Center for Population and Development to provide accurate information on population and reproductive and sexual health. "Social media is everywhere now," says Tang. "It is easier to talk about RSH [reproductive and sexual health] online because it can be anonymous. The youth are future decision makers and we need to educate and inform them."
In another regional example, Asia Safe Abortion Partnership, in India, has used an animated short film on social media channels to put a face to the sensitive issue. The purpose of using animation was to help reduce the stigma against abortion, pregnancy and sex and share anecdotal evidence to bust myths, says Krishnan, also the writer and editor of the film.
The film narrates the struggle of an ordinary Asian woman who is pregnant and wants an abortion. While the social and legal barriers to safe abortion in developing countries of Asia are highlighted, means to overcome them are also shown.
The advantage of using animation is that is allows the issue to be addressed with women speaking for themselves about what they want and need. By adding voiceovers and translations in multiple languages, the film, disseminated through YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, blogs and various listserves, has become relevant to a wider audience across the region, says Krishnan, a feminist writer with a background in medicine.
Krishnan says her group has received requests from other organizations to produce similar films on related reproductive and sexual health issues, such as the approval of the drug misoprostol, legal restrictions and other regional differences.
"Social media is a versatile and multifaceted tool which views young people as agents of change and gives them the opportunity to transform society," Krishnan says.
Swapna Majumdar is a journalist based in New Delhi and writes on development and gender.
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