Cynthia McCaffrey

20 June, 2017

Engaging Young People in Real Time for Real Results

When you least expect it, someone may actually listen to what you have to say.” – Maggie Kuhn.

In the world today, there are almost two billion young people between the ages of 10 and 24.

Here is an innovation…..what if we listened to them… young people? Many are not expecting us to listen, but they are the ones in school. They are the ones preparing for future employment and starting families.

UNICEF tried just this: engaging and listening to young people in real time in 2011.  Under the leadership of Dr. Sharad Sapra, UNICEF’s Uganda office developed and tested U-Report, an SMS tool enabling them to share their views on issues confronting them. Now available on Facebook, Twitter and Viber messengers the U-Report members, or ‘U-Reporters’, can respond to polls and submit questions to experts on a range of issues.

Feedback Labs’ Megan Campbell describes the power of listening and responding in her blog, “Three Simple Questions.” U-Report offers proof of the power of such engagement.  U-Reporters engage because they see the information they provide helping leaders take informed action. So, U-Report has grown from a few thousand U-Reporters in 2011 to 2.3 million in over 40 countries.

So what? While engaging millions of young people is innovative, exciting even, what matters is improving lives.

U-Report engaged young Liberians around safety in school enabling follow up on protecting students from exploitation. In Zambia, where about three young Zambians between the ages of 15-24 are infected with HIV every hour, U-Report shared information on how they may protect themselves. Important issues that are often difficult to discuss. Another recent U-Report impact has been breaking the taboo around menstruation.

In April 2016 the Observer exclaimed, “No Longer Lewd: The Period Is Having a Moment.” This may be true in the US and the UK, where new innovations from waterproof underwear to period tracking apps have generated more public discourse on periods, but this is not the case everywhere. Globally, 1.8 billion women and girls menstruate every month. Yet this reality is ignored in policy design, health curricula and the lack of provision of menstruation related materials, such as sanitary pads, in schools or the workplace. Anecdotal evidence in lower and middle-income countries indicates that this reality and lack of attention causes girls to miss school, but there is a data gap because people just won’t talk about it.

Earlier in 2017 UNICEF Pakistan, working with the government and non-government partners, used U-Report to fill their data gap. Based on their success, 18 other countries followed suit. U-Report asked 170,000 girls across 19 countries and 4 continents about issues around Menstrual Hygiene Management.

For Menstrual Hygiene Day (May 28, 2017), U-Reporters were polled regarding the impact menstruation on their work or school attendance and the level of menstrual education they had received. Civil Society Organisation  partners including the Girl Guides, volunteered to review the polls and answer anonymous, confidential questions from girls and boys about this often sensitive or taboo subject.

By listening, we gained valuable insight on how to enhance Menstrual Hygiene Management programs, guidelines and services that are being developed and rolled out in many countries. From U-Reporting girls we learned that in Tanzania, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Mozambique they were more likely to miss school or work during their periods compared to girls in other countries, particularly upper middle or high income countries.

Lack of education around menstruation was high in India; 41% of U-Reporting girls and women polled said that while growing up they knew little about menstrual health. In Cote d’Ivoire, 31% of U-Reporters did not know about menstruation before their first period.

Lack of access to basic sanitation services means that 83% of school girls polled by U-Report in Mozambique do not feel comfortable changing their sanitary materials at school. Little improves when girls leave school; 71% of girls and women polled did not feel comfortable in their work place toilets. Impact is possible, as seen in Uganda where girls polled cited providing sanitary materials as the most helpful thing their schools could do.

U-Report works because we listen, learn and then respond. There are 2.3 million U-Reporters – imagine what can happen with millions more.


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