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How the UN’s ‘Sex Agency’ Uses Tech to Save Mothers’ Lives

Toward the end of 2020, on a work trip to Chocó, Colombia, Jaime Aguirre came across a girl—perhaps 11 or 12 years old—holding a newborn. 

“Is this your baby?” Aguirre asked. Yes, she said. He was shocked. “Can I ask you—sorry—why did you get pregnant so young?”

“My boyfriend at the time told me that the first time that you have sex, you don’t get pregnant,” he says she replied. 

Aguirre is the innovation coordinator for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in Colombia, a human rights agency focused on reproductive health. It’s the UN’s “sex agency,” and Aguirre describes his job as bolstering health in his country by supporting new technologies. Making them accessible to young people is especially important, because pregnancy is the number one killer of girls aged 15 to 19 worldwide, according to data from Save The Children and UNFPA.

Chocó is a poor area with a large Afro-Colombian population and relatively high rates of adolescent pregnancy. People there rely more on traditional midwifery than the hospital system, so at the time he met the young mother, Aguirre was there to support Partera Vital, or Vital Midwife. The project is rolling out a mobile app to help midwives register newborns and identify risk factors and complications that warrant urgent referrals to the nearest hospital. It’s meant to combine the best of both worlds—preserving the wisdom and tradition of midwifery with the data and resources of institutional health. “Innovation culture is very important for us,” says Aguirre.

“We feel we’re one of the UN’s best kept secrets,” says Eddie Wright, a representative for UNFPA. “We want every pregnancy to be wanted, every birth to be safe, and every young person to reach their potential.” This means helping to provide people in 150 countries, including regions that are at war, with family planning, birth control, and maternal health checkups. Around the world, the agency has innovated with Big Data, drones, and even a robot in an effort to safeguard health and rights. Here’s a look at some of the projects they are leading.

Colombia

When Aguirre returned from Chocó, he was still thinking of the town’s high rates of adolescent pregnancy and maternal mortality. Myths about reproductive health must be playing a role, he thought, and reversing them should help. So he set out to identify the ones in circulation on social media.

“So I got my R,” Aguirre says, referring to the programming language, and wrote a code for scraping tweets in Spanish from anywhere in the world. “I found two myths very quickly,” he recalls. “And I was very concerned.” One discouraged people from getting IUDs by claiming that newborns could come out holding the devices in their hand; another recommended boiling condoms and drinking the water to avoid pregnancy. His team, which named the project Taboo, scaled up, capturing 12,000 tweets from Latin America and Spain that portrayed myths about contraception. They classified them into 22 prevalent themes that ranged from telling people that they can’t get STIs through oral sex to encouraging them to use Coca-Cola as a contraceptive.

The team’s data, methodology, and summaries are now available on a website meant for young women, educators, and policymakers, along with infographics debunking each myth. They’ve shared their findings with both Colombia’s Ministry of Health and district officials in Bogotá who design sex ed programs. “Behavioral change is not a thing you can measure in a short term,” says Aguirre, but he’s optimistic about the potential of his project. 

The Philippines

A UNFPA team from the Philippines instituted a similar project during Covid lockdowns. The nation has one of the highest adolescent pregnancy rates in Asia—in 2017, 9 percent of 15-to-19-year-olds had children. (The Philippines’ Commission on Population and Development, known as PopCom, called it a national emergency.) Nearly a quarter of married women and half of unmarried women in the country have unmet needs for family planning. 

“We noticed that there is limited and outdated data on family planning,” says Leila Joudane, the UNFPA’s representative in the Philippines. As in Colombia, a team began scraping online comments for more current info to supplement government demographic surveys. They used Twitter and RH-Care.info, an educational website for the Filipino public about reproductive health, and found that people were complaining about poor access to contraceptives. “It was a very strict lockdown,” Joudane recalls. “Many people online had a lot of challenges.” They shared this data with PopCom, which responded by distributing contraceptives door-to-door. 

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