As we grow into adulthood, all of us, sooner or later, come up against the more sensitive issues connected with reproductive health. All too often, this happens without the necessary knowledge to handle them.
Even in western culture, which is supposedly quite open about such matters, sex education in schools often bypasses teaching us what is really happening inside our bodies.
For instance, a third of women across the UK alone do not fully understand their own menstrual cycle, a recent study found. The UK is one of the most economically developed countries in the world, yet people are still uneducated on something as essential as menstruation.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), over one million people acquire a sexually transmitted infection every single day worldwide, a number that could be reduced with better access to sex education.
But when you are in your teens, talking to someone older about reproductive or sexual health can be embarrassing. When girls feel they are not allowed to discuss sexual health and contraception or are shamed for their curiosity, they are at risk of being given unhelpful or incorrect answers from friends or partners.
What a lot of teenagers need — as well as many adults — is a way to find answers to questions they’re not confident enough to ask human beings or don’t even know they have.
That’s where online Artificial Intelligence (AI) chatbots come in, for people to talk to openly and confidentially about their sexual health. In this article we spotlight one popular AI chatbot, non-profit Girl Effect‘s “Bol Behen,” that can talk to people in India about sensitive topics like contraception, sex, and sexually transmitted infections.
Called “Speak Sister” in Hindi slang, the chatbot can be used on Facebook Messenger and Whatsapp and is available 24/7. It also works on cheap, low-quality phones and is already popular amongst women and girls in India: Since it was launched in 2020, it has received over 250,000 conversation starters and 2.7 million messages in total.
Impakter spoke to Girl Effect to learn more about the remarkable support they are providing to women and girls in India. As Head of Create Karina Michel tells us, the data and information used to train the chatbots (Bol Behen isn’t the first or only one) came from years of programming with girls.
She reminds us that Girl Effect has been answering girls’ curiosities, questions and concerns since 2012, when they set up “ask aunty” figures in Rwanda and Malawi that resulted in thousands of questions. These questions were used to train Girl Effect’s chatbots, including its first digital “Agony Aunt” in South Africa, called Big Sis, and now Bol Behen in India.
Their content, Karina Michel explains, “is designed by an in-house team of gender, health, clinical experts, and vetted by a team of child protection and data privacy and protection experts ensuring we are designing safe, reliable, and accurate information.”
“We do extensive research to understand barriers and myths in regard to sexual and mental health and we actively work against these, aligning with local government or global policies and health guidelines,” she adds.
Girl Effect works with girls in South Africa and India from diverse backgrounds, with mixed ages and life experiences, building content that resonates with them.
“We take a Human-Centered Design approach to our work, consulting frequently with girls and women through all stages of the product development lifecycle,” Karina Michel says, adding that they have diverse Youth Advisory Panels to involve young people in their decision-making and provide them with opportunities to shape their work as partners.
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Girl Effect has also partnered with the University of California, Berkeley’s Data Discovery program and the University of Essex in partnership with Profusion Lab UK’s Data Academy program to build their own original intelligences.
To ensure its products are representative of its users, Girl Effect also builds its teams with individuals closest to the communities they work with.
“Our chatbot teams are made up of women predominantly based in low- and middle-income countries,” Michel adds.
Girl Effect’s chatbot journey began in South Africa in 2018 and initially involved a non-AI-enhanced chatbot that provided browsable content for girls and young women.
“We began development of our AI in 2020 and spent 18 months training and validating our intelligence to reach an accuracy of 87%. The AI in Big Sis was launched in 2021 and has since seen a 40% increase in content consumption,” production specialist at Girl Effect, Medha Kohli, tells Impakter.
When it comes to encouraging girls to talk to the chatbot, Kohli notes that it wasn’t “about persuading girls to come online.” The chatbot can be found on social media that people already use to find information or be entertained, like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger.
“We believe that if girls are inspired and equipped with the information they need, through products built for them, such as Bol Behen, they will be empowered to make positive choices,” Kohli says.
At present, Bol Behen is “a menu-based bot that allows girls to scroll through a list of topics and themes like love and relationships, sex basics, sex and safety and scroll through and explore any topic of her choice.”
But as Kohli tells us, there’s more to it: The chatbot has a special section called “Ask Bol Behen” where “girls can ask their own personal questions which are routinely answered.”
In Girl Effect’s recent campaign, which received 30,000 individual questions, eight in 100 girls were found to have chosen to talk to a health service after using the chatbot.
This suggests that the chatbot is successful in encouraging girls to be more open when talking about sexual health.
While talking to a real person could have more long-lasting effects and provide a deeper level of education, there is no doubt that starting off these conversations with bots such as Bol Behen is the necessary catalyst to getting girls to take action on educating themselves about their health.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by Impakter.com columnists are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the Featured Photo: Bol Behen being used on a mobile phone. Featured Photo Credit Girl Effect.