Girl Effect’s director of digital research and learning, Kecia Bertermann, outlines what our work has taught us about designing effective mobile interventions.
In many places around the world, the mobile phone is the most commonly used piece of technology. It’s often the only way an adolescent girl can get online.
A teenage girl worried about HIV can turn to her phone when she can’t turn to her very traditional parents or grandparents, who would only tell her not to think of such things, or her friends, who may not know any more than she does.
At Girl Effect, we are experts in using media and digital technology to reach and empower girls.
Over the past three years of qualitative research and design experience, including workshops and sessions held with girls, we have observed the three cornerstones that create effective mobile interventions for girls.
They are presence, privacy, and control.
Mobile phones allow us to meet girls where they are. Use and access to phones is increasing year on year. Using phones, girls are on social media, they’re on the internet.
At Girl Effect, we are already seeing that weaving messages into popular mobile content is a powerful way to reach girls.
In Malawi, our Zathu brand and website digs into the challenging issues of growing up and uses the theme of friendship between boys and girls to talk about harmful stereotypes and HIV.
Using the media platforms that girls are already on, we can incorporate behavioural messages with encouragement to use referral services, health clinics and other sources of support.
We know that stigma and fear often keep girls from using services, particularly sexual and reproductive health services.
Mobile offers a private space in which a girl can search for sensitive information. Through technology, we can meet girls one to one – at scale.
At the moment Girl Effect is piloting a chatbot in South Africa and the Philippines, through mobile community Springster. This gives girls a way to ask questions privately.
Chatbots use artificial intelligence to simulate real-life conversations but by their very nature chatbots cannot judge, or be anything other than impartial. They also cannot betray confidences.
Our early learning is showing that girls value the anonymity of this kind of interface – and we’re finding that even girls who have never used chatbots before are surprisingly comfortable using this technology.
Girls have limited options in many situations, but with a phone in her hand, a girl can control her own learning and pathways to growth.
She can decide the topics in which she is most interested, and she can use the information she finds online to make new choices and to adopt new behaviours. Her world expands, and includes new ideas and inspiration.
She can explore her identity online – as identified in Girl Effect’s research reportFrom Browsing to Behaviour Change. The report shows how online interventions influence behaviour offline, and we have emerging evidence for this, such as comments left by girls on Springster articles saying they have decided to get HIV tests after reading our content.
Mobile holds many exciting opportunities, but we do have to remain mindful of the challenges.
While access to phones amongst girls is increasing overall, in many places the gender digital divide is real, and girls often have less consistent access to mobile phones and technology than boys do.
Then there are structural barriers; for example, a girl might have a phone, but her access to electricity to charge her phone might be limited if the males of the household have the opportunity to charge their phones before females do. These are real issues, and they need to be addressed along with the opportunities to reach girls in exciting new ways.
Just like any other programmatic intervention, mobile phones are tools – and it is our responsibility to use these tools to create positive spaces for girls online. With mobile phones, girls can find sensitive information, interact with other other girls and gain inspiration to create change. It’s not just about the phone – it’s about using the digital tools thoughtfully and creatively to meet girls where they are, address their challenges, and empower them for the future.