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More Mobiles Than Toilets: New Approaches To The Fight Against HIV/AIDS

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By Leah Morris

Women are particularly impacted by HIV/AIDS, alongside stigmatized and discriminated populations such as MSM. UN Women reports that HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of death among women of reproductive age, worldwide. What is even more alarming, almost 60 per cent of all new HIV infections among young persons occurred among adolescent girls and young women; this translates into almost 1,000 young women newly infected with HIV every day.

Why are women more affected? In many cases women are put in positions where they have no voice in their sexuality. This includes sexual violence and trafficking.

Ending the AIDS epidemic requires that we discuss the invisible side of HIV/AIDS, such as cases of sexual violence. Only tackling the surface level of the problem will result in a resurgence of new cases. Many women may be aware of the risks of HIV during unprotected sex, but without equity and rights over their bodies, they may not be able to enact any measures of protection. Giving women and disempowered persons a channel to ask for help, network, and gain information is an essential ingredient to meeting the 2030 Target.

There is an increasing ability to use mobile phones, social media, and other communication technologies to tackle some of the world's most challenging issues. Target 3.3 of the Sustainable Development Goals aims to end the AIDS epidemic by 2030. If we are going to reach this enthusiastic target, we need to rethink our approach. The amount of energy lost in administration and the slow snail track of bureaucracy cannot keep up with the racing pace of the data plowed into social media on the daily. The marriage of improved data management with increasingly universal access results in a tool of extreme impact.

Using mobile devices and social media as a tool to democratize access to medical care is in our future. This is an opportunity for citizen advocacy, to gather together virtually to discuss what is needed in communities locally and globally. The Arab Spring in 2011 demonstrated the potential for advocacy through social media platforms such as Twitter.

Mobile resources are getting off the ground for work in HIV/AIDS. For example, AIDS.gov has created apps to help connect people to resources such as HIV Testing and care sites within the United States. This is only the mustard seed of the potential for mobile networks.

Access is increasing. According to the World Bank, around three-quarters of the world's inhabitants now have access to a mobile phone and to mobile communications. Additionally, networks are doubling in bandwidth approximately every 18 months [and] extending further into rural areas.

A headline from the United Nations University read in 2015, "Greater Access to Cellphones Than Toilets in India". These networks can disseminate information; connect people living with HIV (PLHIV), open forums for advocacy, discussion, and learning. In ensuring a safe community and harnessing the power of anonymity, massive amounts of data can surface when in-person discussions around the issue have become taboo and uncomfortable.

Anonymity is powerful and can be used to perpetuate stigma and discrimination or it can be used to liberate and empower. HIV/AIDS is one of the most stigmatized illnesses globally, making many who are impacted invisible. Mobile devices are especially useful to engage difficult to reach populations including LGBTQ, transgender persons, disadvantaged youth, sex workers, and women with little social power.

In the future, data collection arising from users of the internet can inform laws and policy. For example, many organizations work to encourage HIV testing among populations to ensure everyone knows their HIV status. This knowledge is essential to developing any kind of strategic plan. Similarly, we need to know why people are not getting tested, what the barriers to services are, and how to make these services more accessible.

Researchers could benefit from anonymous information that is typically ethically challenging to survey including sexual preferences, sexual behaviours, practices, current knowledge on HIV/AIDS, use of protection, drug use, etc. Careful eye needs to be kept to the ownership of this data, however if publicly owned this wealth of information could be beneficial.

Additionally, PLHIV platforms for connecting could be a great tool to discuss drug regimens. Advice from others who are living with HIV/AIDS such as to what to expect, their stories, and improvements to their quality of life. Further, conversation amongst PLHIV, partners, and the public helps break down myths and creates capacity for daily conversation that Doctors and in person support groups simply can't keep up with.

More discussion and research needs to be undergone in gender and technology, recent research is finding differences in gender use and access. For example, Hill and Shaw (2013) found that there is a gender gap on Wikipedia; the majority of public editors are male. The reasons for this are complex and still being studied. Technological gender equity goes beyond permitted access to systemic social constructs, which we must be aware of when creating these platforms.

This is a brief discussion that only touches on the challenges and complex details of this approach. I hope to emphasize the need to move HIV/AIDS work towards grassroots, people driven, and universally accessible discussions. Modern technology gives us an opportunity to give a voice to women and move towards equity in resource access, as well as moving away from slow, exclusive, and expensive executive discussions.

Leah Morris holds a Bachelor of Arts Combined Hons. in International Development and Environment, Sustainability and Society from Dalhousie University/The University of King's College as of October, 2015. As an undergraduate Ms. Morris was published in the Underg(rad) Journal by NSPIRG (2015), Halifax, NS. She is currently interning through the Canadian International Youth Internship Programme with the Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition, where she lives in Kingston, Jamaica pro tempore.

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This blog is part of an International Women's Day series produced by the Interagency Coalition on AIDS and Development (ICAD) in recognition of International Women's Day 2016 (March 8). The series runs during the week of March 7, 2016 and will feature a selection of blogs written by our member and partner organizations who will share their broad range. Each provides their perspective and their insight on what must be done to achieve UN Women's campaign of "Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality" as we embark on the race to meet our 2030 Goals for Sustainable Development.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog series are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of ICAD.