Fact-based, medically accurate sexual health education is ALWAYS a good idea, especially at an adolescent age. But not everyone around the world has the ability to access good information from youth, which can lead to negative consequences later in life when making decisions around sexuality.
International non-profit organization CARE is helping to fill a sexual health gap for a specific group of women in Cambodia, to help them understand how family planning and choices around sex based on the right information can empower their lives and have an impact financially.
CARE Cambodia developed a program called Chat! Contraception in 2015, designed to improve the health of female garment workers (but the program also includes men) and share information about birth control, pregnancies, STDs and other reproductive issues. Chat! is doing this in a unique way, through an app which allows the user to take a mobile quiz about sexual health topics, engage in chat sessions and training, and also watch soap opera-type videos made by CARE which contain everyday scenarios around sexuality the women might be familiar with.
The mobile quiz component works hand-in-hand with the soap opera as it contains questions relating to the content viewed in the videos. The app has also started to become an effective tool of communication among women and their male partners, some even waiting until they are with their partners to participate in the quiz so they get to learn at the same time.
There is a good reason the non-profit is targeting the women of this profession specifically. The garment sector is Cambodia’s largest formal sector, employing approximately 650,000 workers. The majority of whom are young women who have migrated from the provinces to the cities. Often these young workers lack knowledge of sexual and reproductive health, and end up not using modern contraceptives. This can lead to cases of unsafe abortions, leaving workers severely sick and unable to work.
The app does not require a high literacy rate, making it all the more effective among its users who may not have had the chance to have a formal education. In an interview for Lenny Letter, two of the co-founders, Julia Battle and Maly Man share more details about the effectiveness and importance of Chat!, saying they have reached 15,000 garment workers so far and have seen rates of contraception use increase to nearly 50% because of the app.
In addition to this, unwanted pregnancies have declined and women are reporting more confidence in discussing their sexual needs and boundaries with their partners, making for more healthy outcomes for the women. Julia and Maly say there is a lot of stigma and misinformation around sex, which are a key reason why they see so many problems. One of the major misnomers is the belief that abortion is illegal in Cambodia.
“The impact of so many women (and men) thinking abortion is illegal here is that when women do need abortions, they rely on unsafe, outdated methods. Many women will visit unlicensed practitioners to give them surgical abortions, or they will use something popularly called the ‘Chinese pill’, packets that may contain some of the effective drugs, but in incorrect and variable doses. Otherwise, they might buy a licensed abortion pill from the shop but then will use it incorrectly,” said the app co-founders.
Another cultural trend that perpetuates this is the popularity of Thai movies, which commonly show abortion being illegal, which it is in Thailand. That leads to confusion for women in Cambodia.
“But the need for abortion in the first place is also due to this community having limited understanding about effective birth control,” said the co-founders, adding that misinformation around birth control is also a major problem.
“One very popular misconception here is that if you haven’t ever been pregnant, if you use birth control, it will make you infertile, and you will never be able to have children. Another one is around IUDs and implants — that they will float out of your uterus or your arm and roam dangerously around your body forever,” they said.
Additionally, they are not informed about potential side effects and don’t know to contact reproductive health centers to discuss which birth control method is best for them.
“Side effects for contraception are very real — they have to be acknowledged, not ignored. Even in the Western world, if your contraception feels horrible, and you don’t understand why or how long they might last, that is really scary, and you can be sure you won’t keep using the method,” said the co-founders.
Chat! Contraception has added a component for men due to the reports of their female users engaging with their partners while undertaking the quizzes, showing the wide impact this app is having.
“Even though the workplace sessions were intended for women, men working in the factory were showing up to watch the videos because they are fun, but also because they have questions! It’s easier for women to have conversations about sex and contraception when their partners are familiar with accurate information also,” said Julia and Maly.
Women and men who use the app don’t just learn about sexual health and family planning, but also about STIs and they are given a directory of health centers they can access if they don’t feel comfortable or supported using the clinics provided by the factories. Healthy sexual outcomes mean better outcomes for families and partnerships, and it can having a positive, lasting impact on a woman’s ability to be financially stable. You can learn more about Chat! Contraception on the CARE Cambodia website, and watch one of the videos made for the app below.