What's the best way for young people to talk about HIV in an urban slum in Kenya? For Maxfacta, an organisation working in an informal settlement in Mathare, it is social media.
Over 250 young people are part of a WhatsApp group, using it as a platform (accessed on mobile phones) to discuss sexual and reproductive health issues, including HIV.
Grace Muthoni, a mentor and programme officer at Maxfacta, said: "Members of the WhatsApp group openly discuss HIV issues, provide peer-to-peer support, psychosocial and sometimes financial support through income generating activities."
Linking HIV with sexual and reproductive health
Brian Ndungu, a member and beneficiary of Maxfacta, captured the critical role of social media among young people in a presentation during a four-day regional Link Up meeting in Nairobi last week.
Link Up is a project which aims to improve the sexual and reproductive health of young people most affected by HIV and to promote the realisation of young people's sexual and reproductive rights. It involves linking up sexual and reproductive health and rights with HIV information, education and communication materials, as well as training peer educators and service providers in five countries: Bangladesh, Burundi, Ethiopia, Myanmar and Uganda.
Brian said: "WhatsApp is a preferred medium because it is cheap and easy to use and can connect people from far reaching areas. All you need is a phone that can support the application."
Through this group in Mathare, young people have been able to share ideas on matters concerning family planning methods, HIV testing and referrals to centers that offer services on these issues. They get involved in sport activities where they mobilise their peers to create awareness on HIV testing and services.
Social media makes HIV info accessible
Kevin Okumu, a young man living with HIV, is a member of the WhatsApp group. He recalls when he met Grace Muthoni through Facebook while studying at university. Now his mentor, Grace introduced him to Maxfacta and the group. Kevin said: "The process of HIV disclosure is a journey to a person living positively. It requires strength and time. You also need to know who to trust with this kind of information. We should embrace social media platforms because they provide avenues to connect with our peers from different places allowing us to exchange ideas and advice."
Using this approach is ideal because it can reach and capture the attention of many young people, who might otherwise be harder to access, and provide them with relevant messages on HIV and sexual and reproductive health and rights. Youth still account for 29 per cent of new HIV infections in Kenya and 21 per cent of people living with HIV in Kenya are between 15-24 years of age. A study in 2015 revealed that 88 per cent of youth in Kenya want a smart phone as their next phone and they typically access the internet around four times a week on average.
However, there is also a need for caution, as Kevin says: "Youth can easily get excited with information accessed online posing a danger of sharing unauthentic messages that can cause alarm. We discuss all information in our WhatsApp group before forwarding or discarding the information."
Bernard Baridi, the youth coordinator for the National Empowerment Network of Persons Living with HIV/AIDS in Kenya (NEPHAK), said: "Kenya can reach a lot more key populations if policy makers and programme implementers can get involved in activities where they can learn from the perspective of the youth."
Technology and social networking, if used carefully can ensure a large number of youth are reached with HIV and sexual and reproductive health services without necessarily meeting in person. Embracing this approach is vital for Kenya, if it is to succeed in its target to reduce new HIV infections by 75 per cent by 2017.