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How these Women-Run Apps Are Changing Sex Education

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Last year, Trump cut federal funding to the National Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program, which affected 80 organizations that taught sex education and sexual health. Trump pulled $32.5 M for a UN program that helps women and girls in 155 countries around the world. Not only is the current administration paving a devastating future for women’s health and comprehensive sex education, the path is already riddled with obstacles, disparities, and setbacks.


What lacks in sex education in middle school translates into adulthood, where grown individuals are unaware or uneducated on certain topics pertaining to their own body. Moreover, because sex education as teenagers is so terribly delivered, sexual health becomes a taboo, and overtly unavailable in conversations. Sexual illiteracy is common in adulthood as their childhood lacked proper and informative education. However, for these two smartphone applications, technology is breaching those gaps in order to strive to create quality comprehensive information.

While teaching in rural Eastern North Carolina through Teach For America, Liz Chen and Vichi Jagannathan began to see that many “School leaders and health teachers weren’t equipped to teach it or didn’t want to teach it [sex education].”

Co-Founders of Real Talk

In early 2016, Christina Leos, Chen, and Jagannathan created MyHealthEd, Inc in order to create a change within the sex education system by incorporating online courses and technology.

The team decided to focus on 7th and 8th graders and researched what teens wanted from a sex education course. Chen explains that they spent time, “with hundreds of middle school students” and had “interviews and observations” and found that they felt the most comfortable with an application on a smartphone. After brainstorming ideas, the team worked closely with the teens to address any problems or questions that they found important. The result? The RealTalk app, a non-profit phone application that allows teenagers to speak with real teens through stories and narrative based messaging.

How do you reach out to middle schoolers and engage with their interests? Chen explains that they are focusing on “puberty, relationships, and bullying.” RealTalk also works in a narrative form, where you can chat and read stories relatable to acne or having a crush. The team hopes to grow in the months and years in accordance to what their users are looking for in the app.

RealTalk works with real teenagers and their stories. Their middle school teen advisory board communicates virtually with the team and introduces content and gives input into social media aspects for the app. Leos explains that a “distinguishing factor of [RealTalk] is that we use real stories as content and to connect teens with information.” She continues, “That’s very important when you’re working with an audience of a specific age group. Being able to use language that’s relatable, offering stories and experiences of other people who are like them. That’s a natural way that they see information and a natural way that they learn.”

Their board of directors include a “cross-section of experts across a variety of fields which include education technology, sexual health education,” and they “offer guidance and expertise of all of the topics that are relevant to how we run our organization and how we work with teens,” says Leos.

Ask Tia App

After raising $2.5 M to continue development and branding, Tia launched as a smartphone application that answers questions about birth control, insurance, vaginal health, PMS, and various other health concerns. Like RealTalk, Tia provides a conversational approach with a sassy narrative by the bot, Tia. She answers your questions, she sends you .gifs, she’s your personal private health advisor on speed dial.

Carolyn Witte, the CEO and Co-Founder of Tia started the app when realizing her own “frustrations with the healthcare system.” She explains to me that the system is not “designed to serve women’s unique healthcare needs.”

Witte, along with Co-Founder Felicity Yost of Tia, wanted the bot to be your “BFF with an MD.” In the Guardian’s 2017 opinion piece by Ranjana Srivastava, she explains that doctors must be more equipped in answering questions about sexuality. She explains that this is “good medicine,” and to do any different would be contributing to a failing in the healthcare system. Adults need sex education, too. Recently, educators have begun to seek out adult spaces like churches, retirement homes, volunteer spaces, or clubs where they can teach sex education to grown adults. These discussions don’t involve topics like puberty, obviously, but touch on dating, physical alterations to the body, and dialogue around intimacy.

For Witte, she says that Tia is a persona brought to life. Like these in-person classes, Tia acts as your really smart friend who you can trust, and who never leaves you on 'read'. White says, “We obsess and obsess over the right balance of sass to sweet to serious to science in every message Tia sends you. We obsess over it because it’s the key to cultivating trust and building a meaningful 1:1 relationship with women — something we believe is largely missing from health care today and a void that Tia seeks to fill. Without a trusted relationship, all else falls apart, so it’s really the most important thing we do.”

Tia begins by asking you a series of questions, to better understand you, your body, your cycle, and your preferred interests. With Google search as a millennials main source of knowledge, Tia is a conversational interface that creates a database of your health, gives you the ability to set up reminders, find a doctor, choose a type of birth control, and response to questions with a sex-positive attitude. Witte says, “Since launching the Tia app in June, we’ve learned that so many women just want to know if what they are experiencing is ‘normal — to which the correct answer is almost always, ‘it depends…’ To better solve for this, we’re working on some cool new stuff to help women better benchmark their own bodily experiences against themselves, other women and medical standards.”

Obviously, Tia isn’t a substitute for seeing a professional but sometimes, women just want to know what an abnormal Pap means or why certain sex positions feel better than others.

Ask Tia App

For both applications, the idea of negating “loneliness” is a common goal. For many people, whatever their questions, whatever their age, feeling alone is a commonality. RealTalk and Tia provide real, or bot-like, voices that immediately respond via messaging. These applications become a user's best friend—someone removed from the situation, but someone who is always there. Moreover, someone who is knowledgeable about the situation or topic. Reading stories from people with similar experiences is something that the team learned was valuable for middle schoolers during their time spent with the teens.

Leos says that RealTalk is unique because of the “explicit focus on middle school students.” Most resources don’t target this specific age bracket but focus on high schoolers, young adults, and college students.

Sex education in the classroom has been up for debate with both pros and cons for many years. Is technology the future of sex education? Leos agrees that technology, especially phone applications, have the “ability to reach a wide audience.” She continues, “What’s relevant to our case is that we know that so many teens don’t have access to relevant and high-quality sexual health information. Using technology allows us to bridge some of those barriers.”

Witte explains that tech solutions to sex education are important because of the privacy and anonymity within the applications. These applications are hacking the health care system in terms of tackling “taboo” topics, and creating a fully disclosed knowledge of a person’s body. Witte says about the future of sex in tech, “To be fully successful, tech needs to integrate with real-world care and real-world education systems. At its best, I believe technology can serve as a springboard for sparking a public conversation, changing consumer behavior, and ultimately creating systemic change. That, to me, is success for Tia.” For the RealTalk app, they are aware that many teens are finding incorrect information online or are seeking out pornography to better educate themselves. According to Time an average American teen spends over “seven hours a day on a media device.” Moreover, exposure to porn (which can be arguably the new age of sex education) can happen as early as six or seven years old. The team at RealTalk wants to redirect teens to the correct information.

Reshaping sexual education begins with the screen’s we hold in our hands. Where children are exposed to an onslaught of explicit images, and women spend hours texting or googling questions about their body’s, comprehensive technology can serve as a vehicle for bettering a sexual future.

7min read
Culture

The Middle East And North Africa Are Brimming With Untapped Female Potential

Women of the Middle East have made significant strides in the past decade in a number of sectors, but huge gaps remain within the labor market, especially in leadership roles.


A huge number of institutions have researched and quantified trends of and obstacles to the full utilization of females in the marketplace. Gabriela Ramos, is the Chief-of-Staff to The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an alliance of thirty-six governments seeking to improve economic growth and world trade. The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.

To realize the possibilities, attention needs to be directed toward the most significantly underutilized resource: the women of MENA—the Middle East and North African countries. Educating the men of MENA on the importance of women working and holding leadership roles will improve the economies of those nations and lead to both national and global rewards, such as dissolving cultural stereotypes.

The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.

In order to put this issue in perspective, the MENA region has the second highest unemployment rate in the world. According to the World Bank, more women than men go to universities, but for many in this region the journey ends with a degree. After graduating, women tend to stay at home due to social and cultural pressures. In 2017, the OECD estimated that unemployment among women is costing some $575 billion annually.

Forbes and Arabian Business have each published lists of the 100 most powerful Arab businesswomen, yet most female entrepreneurs in the Middle East run family businesses. When it comes to managerial positions, the MENA region ranks last with only 13 percent women among the total number of CEOs according to the Swiss-based International Labor Organization (ILO.org publication "Women Business Management – Gaining Momentum in the Middle East and Africa.")

The lopsided tendency that keeps women in family business—remaining tethered to the home even if they are prepared and capable of moving "into the world"—is noted in a report prepared by OECD. The survey provides factual support for the intuitive concern of cultural and political imbalance impeding the progression of women into the workplace who are otherwise fully capable. The nations of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Jordan and Egypt all prohibit gender discrimination and legislate equal pay for men and women, but the progressive-sounding checklist of their rights fails to impact on "hiring, wages or women's labor force participation." In fact, the report continues, "Women in the six countries receive inferior wages for equal work… and in the private sector women rarely hold management positions or sit on the boards of companies."

This is more than a feminist mantra; MENA's males must learn that they, too, will benefit from accelerating the entry of women into the workforce on all levels. Some projections of value lost because women are unable to work; or conversely the amount of potential revenue are significant.

Elissa Freiha, founder of Womena, the leading empowerment platform in the Middle East, emphasizes the financial benefit of having women in high positions when communicating with men's groups. From a business perspective it has been proven through the market Index provider MSCI.com that companies with more women on their boards deliver 36% better equity than those lacking board diversity.

She challenges companies with the knowledge that, "From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies."

Freiha agrees that educating MENA's men will turn the tide. "It is difficult to argue culturally that a woman can disconnect herself from the household and community." Her own father, a United Arab Emirates native of Lebanese descent, preferred she get a job in the government, but after one month she quit and went on to create Womena. The fact that this win-lose situation was supported by an open-minded father, further propelled Freiha to start her own business.

"From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies." - Elissa Frei

While not all men share the open-mindedness of Freiha's dad, a striking number of MENA's women have convincingly demonstrated that the talent pool is skilled, capable and all-around impressive. One such woman is the prominent Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid bin Sultan Al-Qasimi, who is currently serving as a cabinet minister in the United Arab Emirates and previously headed a successful IT strategy company.

Al-Qasimi exemplifies the potential for MENA women in leadership, but how can one example become a cultural norm? Marcello Bonatto, who runs Re: Coded, a program that teaches young people in Turkey, Iraq and Yemen to become technology leaders, believes that multigenerational education is the key. He believes in the importance of educating the parent along with their offspring, "particularly when it comes to women." Bonatto notes the number of conflict-affected youth who have succeeded through his program—a boot camp training in technology.

The United Nations Women alongside Promundo—a Brazil-based NGO that promotes gender-equality and non-violence—sponsored a study titled, "International Men and Gender Equality Survey of the Middle East and North Africa in 2017."

This study surveyed ten thousand men and women between the ages of 18 and 59 across both rural and urban areas in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and the Palestinian Authority. It reports that, "Men expected to control their wives' personal freedoms from what they wear to when the couple has sex." Additionally, a mere one-tenth to one-third of men reported having recently carried out a more conventionally "female task" in their home.

Although the MENA region is steeped in historical tribal culture, the current conflict of gender roles is at a crucial turning point. Masculine power structures still play a huge role in these countries, and despite this obstacle, women are on the rise. But without the support of their nations' men this will continue to be an uphill battle. And if change won't come from the culture, maybe it can come from money. By educating MENA's men about these issues, the estimated $27 trillion that women could bring to their economies might not be a dream. Women have been empowering themselves for years, but it's time for MENA's men to empower its women.