Maputo, Mozambique — "My friend's boyfriend forces her to have sex. What should she do?"
When Dalva Costa, 29, sees a message like this, she knows that behind it there's a girl in urgent need of advice.
"It's common for girls to speak in the third person when they are too shy to admit their problems," says Ms. Costa - and she would know. For three years, Ms. Costa has been working as a counsellor with the youth association Coalizão to promote sexual and reproductive rights in Mozambique. She answers hundreds of text messages a day about sexuality, family planning, relationships and now, about COVID-19.
The questions are sent via SMS by adolescents and youth aged 10-24 to SMS Biz - a free platform with over 293,000 users that allows youth from all over Mozambique to ask questions and get information on a variety of topics. This includes sexual and reproductive health, teenage pregnancies, HIV, child marriage, violence or COVID-19.
To reach even more adolescents and youth, the Spotlight Initiative is supporting the platform's expansion and training more counsellors to increase its response capacity.
Counselling from home
Ms. Costa used to work four-hour shifts at the SMS Biz hub in Mozambique's capital, Maputo. But since the national government declared a state of emergency due to COVID-19, she now works from home. At first, it was hard to juggle work and family responsibilities, but she has found a balance and is happy to work more hours to respond to an increased demand for information.
"The biggest challenge is countering misinformation, cultural myths and rumors," says Ms. Costa.
In a country where an estimated 46 per cent of girls aged 15 to 19 are either pregnant or already mothers and one in four women suffers violence, accessing reliable information about sexual and reproductive health is vital.
"Girls are often more concerned with avoiding pregnancy than preventing sexually transmitted diseases," says Ms. Costa, describing one of the challenges she deals with every day. "Often, adolescents cannot distinguish between sexual violence and consent, and believe that forced sex is normal," she adds.
With schools closed due to COVID-19, young people have fewer opportunities to access adolescent-friendly services, to access information, confide in someone or report abuse. SMS Biz counsellors like Ms. Costa remain on the front lines to provide reliable, lifesaving information.
"We save lives by helping youth prevent unplanned pregnancies, HIV transmission or child marriage," she says.
Before the pandemic, Coalizão activists would promote the SMS BIZ platform and sexual and reproductive rights during public events and celebrations. Photo: Yassmine Forte/UNICEF
Helping youth at risk of violence in real time
The SMS Biz platform receives around 5,000 messages a day and counsellors typically reply within a day or two. But when they see a message about sexual violence, abuse or child marriage, they know the answer cannot wait.
"These messages trigger an urgent response" said Jorge Costa Abdul, 27, an SMS Biz team supervisor.
Most messages tagged "violence" are handled through the toll-free National Child Helpline (Linha Fala Criança, 116) by a team of trained counsellors who have direct access to the SMS Biz counselling dashboard. They contact the reporting SMS Biz user, quickly assess the situation and provide support to refer and follow up on the case with social welfare, police and justice services as needed.
Since the platform's launch in 2015, the youth association Coalizão has trained and coordinated the work of 48 SMS Biz counselors across two hubs in Maputo and in Quelimane, Zambezia province. These 48 counsellors have answered more than 1,742,000 questions from adolescents and youth all over Mozambique. With support from the EU-funded Spotlight Initiative, which is led by the Ministry of Gender, Child and Social Action, a third sub-regional counselling hub is currently being established in Nampula province. An additional 50 counsellors have been trained and 20 of them will be integrated in this new hub.
In addition, more than 5,600 female youth mentors under the sister initiative, Rapariga Biz, have access to the SMS Biz platform via their mobile phones. This helps to bridge the digital divide between Rapariga Biz mentees - who may not have access to a mobile phone - and the content available on the platform. When unsure about how to answer a question from one of the girls they counsel, Rapariga Biz mentors can text SMS Biz and quickly get the correct answer to their mentees' most pressing concerns.
Coalizão, or 'Mozambican Youth Association Coalition', is a non-profit organization also supported by the Spotlight Initiative which promotes sexual and reproductive health and rights among youth and adolescents across Mozambique. The organization empowers youth with information, skills and improved access to services, with the aim to reduce teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections and HIV.
By Leonor Costa Neves.