Can mobile communication influence sex worker behaviour change?

Can mobile communication influence behaviour change in the sex worker population in South Africa?
Erica Penfold, Senior Manager of Learning and Dissemination, Wits RHI

The first Southern African Communications for Change conference was held from 30 October to 1 November 2018, in Johannesburg, South Africa. Bringing together communication practitioners from the region and the globe, participants had the opportunity to share their own experiences and learn from relevant social and behavioural change content from civil society, donor organisations, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), government, and the advertising and creative industries.

Conference sessions included plenaries, debates, presentations and practical sessions to share understanding of the value of communication across a number of fields. Attendees also participated in skills-building workshops to learn and network with fellow communications practitioners.

Wits RHI’s participation and research contribution

Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute (Wits RHI) Key Populations project presented recent findings among South African sex workers in the “Innovative research and evaluation methodologies” session, chaired by Sarah Magni of Genesis Analytics. The presentation centred on a study conducted to assess whether sustained use of mobile communication can influence behaviour change in the sex worker population in Hillbrow and Tshwane in Gauteng province.

Over a 30-day period, the research team implemented a 10-item qualitative questionnaire with a sample size of 197 sex workers across these two sites. Conducted as formative research, preliminary results showed that 170 respondents have access to smartphones that could enable mobile behaviour change technology. Respondents expressed a preference for SMS communication (50%) over WhatsApp messaging or telephone calls. The three priority information types that sex workers requested were health information (75.4%), clinic reminders (84.8%), and specific information on antiretrovirals (45.5%) and sexually-transmitted infections (42.9%).

Study results regarding smartphone ownership suggest that mobile communication is a viable use of technology to disseminate health messaging to sex workers, and the stated preference for SMS communication calls for translation of existing paper-based content into digital formats. The study also recommends conducting a baseline and endline assessment to assess the effects of mobile health messaging on retention in care.

Moving forward in communications for the Key Populations project

The conference was a timeous and pertinent event, considering the need for innovative communications for key populations affected by high rates of HIV infection. One of the key takeaways was the need to diversify communication regarding HIV prevention and to network broadly with different sectors in the public health field to learn and share insights on a much-needed shift in behavioural communication strategies. Wits RHI is committed to continuing its efforts in researching and providing solutions for change in the sex worker community.

Wits RHI’s Key Populations Programme Operating Model
Wits RHI’s Key Populations Programme Operating Model

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Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute, Wits RHI, key populations, sex workers, mobile communication, behavior change, social and behavior change communication (SBCC), smartphones, SMS messaging, health messaging, HIV prevention, retention in care