SophieBOT Project Hopes to Be the “Siri” of Sex Education in Kenya
A chatbot app created by students is breaking taboos and educating youth.
Sex education has come a long way over recent decades. Slowly, we’ve progressed from incredibly awkward PSAs, and lessons that sound more like they’re about plumbing than human contact, toward much more open discussions of sexual health and sexuality.
But there’s still considerable controversy over how schools should approach the topic. In some places, sex education continues to focus mostly on abstinence. This is despite the fact that abstinence-only programs are linked to higher rates of unwanted pregnancies and STIs.
Fortunately, several websites and smartphone apps have arrived to fill the gap. One such app is SophieBOT, created by students at Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in 2016, and hailed as the “Siri” for sexual and reproductive health information.
Let’s talk about sex
Co-founder Mutindi Beverly Chogo got involved after her friend went through a painful abortion. The experience was confusing and traumatic, and Chogo was spurred into action. Others, such as CEO Irving Amukasa and Chief Technology Officer Derick Mureithi, provided the technical know-how.
The app was developed with the support of the I.AM Campaign, a United Nations Population Fund initiative to help startups create new ways of making information on sexual and reproductive health accessible to young people.
In Kenya, sex education is heavily pro-abstinence. But more than one-third of teens between the ages of 15 and 19 have had sex anyway, and the country has a high rate of unplanned teenage pregnancies.
In 2010, the redrafted constitution permitted abortions in cases when a woman’s health is in danger. But in 2013 training in safe abortion was banned for all healthcare providers. The result is that backstreet abortions remain common and kill thousands of women annually.
The developers of SophieBOT hope their app can help change that. Using its automated chat function, young people can ask questions about sex and sexuality on a range of topics, including contraceptives and STIs. It also has a forum where adolescents can anonymously post questions to be answered by the SophieBOT community.
Breaking the taboo
This year, the Kenyan government came under fire for plans to expand sex education in school curriculums. Critics claim that comprehensive sex education will sexualize children and encourage homosexuality and abortion.
Studies have shown otherwise, but there’s strong resistance to programs that deviate from abstinence-only education.
CEO Irving Amukusa told Future of Sex this demonstrates the problem his app tries to solve. Because it can be awkward and taboo to discuss sexual health, SophieBOT fulfills an important role by “providing accurate and verified information on sexual health to the youth free from bias, stigma, and judgment”.