safe2choose has launched a new mHealth initiative that is designed to give all South Africans access to immediate and locally relevant sexual health services and information, via a simple SMS platform.

While South Africa’s constitution is progressive by placing emphasis on empowering individuals in the realm of sexual identity and sexual health, daily South African life remains hampered by socio-economic inequalities. This is especially evident when it comes to access to abortion information and services.

According to research carried out by Ipas, a global non-profit organisation that opposes unsafe abortions, 30% of South African women are not aware that abortion is legal, while an estimated 50% of South African abortions are performed illegally, in unsafe environments.

“18.5 million of the global total of 21.6 million annual unsafe abortions occur in developing countries like South Africa,” said Fem’s Associate Programme Officer, Phephisile Mathizerd.

“Unsafe abortions have a massive impact on young women, the members of local society most impacted by poverty and unemployment. Young women have huge potential when it comes to contributing positively to national development. It’s imperative that we find a way to make the vision of the constitution real, and that we evolve into a society where all citizens have comprehensive access to sexual health services and information,” continued Mathizerd.

Part of an international non-profit movement, safe2choose is a social enterprise whose mission is to provide evidence-based information and counselling on how to have a safe abortion. Fem is safe2choose’s innovation arm that experiments with ways to help achieve its mission using new modern technology, such as mobile phones.

Fem’s first campaign will refer women to safe and legal abortion service providers in their area quickly and privately.

The user sends the trigger word FEM to 30816 via SMS. After answering a few questions on the platform, they will then receive a referral SMS to a legal and safe health facility that provides abortions nearby.

An introductory message will request permission for the system to map the user’s geographic location, which allows for the provision of specific information about service providers in the user’s immediate area. These providers meet key qualification criteria and quality standards, and have been verified by the safe2choose team. Users unwilling or unable to provide geolocation consent are given, or directed to, a manual look-up option which allows them to manually select their location and receive a referral.

“When you think abortion is illegal, when it’s a subject you feel you are not allowed to discuss, when you know of no public health resources that can help you, you are very likely to be trapped in a state of confusion,” said Mathizerd.

“This confusion creates a sense of isolation that often stops women from testing to see whether they are pregnant at the vital early stage. Women who determine their pregnancy status within the first 12 weeks have many options, but the longer they wait to test, the fewer choices there are. Therefore, Fem by safe2choose places a strong emphasis on the speedy and efficient delivery of vital information. We want to get rid of the confusion by giving people immediate access to key facts and relevant resources,” continued Mathizerd.

The SMS system will be piloted in Gauteng and will gradually roll out to other provinces. Fem will be promoted through various channels, including interviews on local radio stations, flyers at regional clinics and extensive social media campaigns. These efforts will expose key audience groups in areas of need to the possibility of legal, safe and effective choices, close to home.

Once the Referral Campaign is fully operational, Fem will allow women to give feedback on the quality of service for better service delivery. Thereafter, the safe2choose team plan to integrate with its expert counsellors.

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