Background: Ethiopia currently has over 30 higher education learning facilities with enrolments increasing every year. Many of the young students however lack information to protect themselves against HIV/AIDS infections and many female students face unwanted pregnancy, unsafe abortion and may face sexual and gender-based violence.
To address these issues, Pathfinder International began implementing m4Youth in 2014. This a free, menu-based SMS service provided through the Integrated Family Health Program, in partnership with John Snow, Inc., and supported by USAID. The goal of m4Youth is to impact positively on students’ knowledge of sexual and reproductive health, thereby increasing their utilization of relevant and safe services.
What did the programme involve? m4Youth provides tailored sexual and reproductive health information to university students at Adama Science and Technology University via SMS. Students text ’8990,’ and receive messages containing menus. They can then request information from the menu, texting a number that corresponds to the topic of their interest, and the information is sent to their phone.
When students text they are offered a range of information from six key topic menus including:
· “HIV and sexually transmitted infections” – information about common misconceptions and stigma, in addition to prevention, testing, and treatment facilities.
· “Contraceptive methods”- Information on a full range of methods, with dual method use (a condom plus another method) being encouraged.
· “Sexuality” – the most commonly accessed menu to date, possibly indicating students’ desire for a broad range information on sexual life.
· “Unsafe abortion”
· “Healthy versus abusive relationships”
· “Where to find services” – contact information for sexual and reproductive health services available on and off campus.
Each topic and SMS message was chosen after a baseline survey and discussions with students highlighted issues students felt they lacked information on. Messages were tested to check they were accurate, easy to understand and culturally appropriate. Messages are written in English and Oromifa – a local language.
The service was advertised widely throughout campus with billboard posters and M4Youth also trained peer educators in various sexual and reproductive health issues.
Why this approach? Many young university students have access to mobile phones and are used to text messaging and receiving information in this way.
Results observed: During the first nine weeks of implementation, the menus most accessed by students were: ‘Sexuality’ (39%) and ‘Contraceptive methods’ (20%), followed by ‘Sexually transmitted infections/ HIV’ (15%), ‘Healthy vs abusive relationships’ (12%), ‘Where to find services’ (8%), and ‘Unsafe abortion’ (6%).”
Lessons learnt: SMS Services are strengthened when they are promoted as a part of a wider supportive sexual and reproductive health campaign such as the training peer of educators and the establishment of youth-friendly health facilities.