How artificial intelligence is changing the way girls in Pakistan discuss reproductive health

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Saba Khalid writes about creating a chatbot to answer girls’ questions on typically taboo health topics in pakistan.

It all started one day with a backache. I didn’t know where it came from and I didn’t know how I could ease it, but every day it was getting harder and harder for me to breathe. The body has a strange way of communicating what the heart wants. And when you don’t listen to it, the body tries to aggressively wake you up to it.

Looking back, I think what my heart needed was a sense of purpose. All of my life, I had tried to find purpose through love and relationships, travel, high-paying yet mind-numbing jobs, servitude to family and friends. But I hadn’t discovered it yet.

In 2016, I started looking for role models, hoping they would help me on my quest for meaning. That landed me at a tech incubator in Karachi called The Nest i/o, where young women were daring to start their own tech businesses. I spent four months learning from these incredible young female leaders.

During that time, I had been thinking about how progressive topics about women’s empowerment aren’t often discussed in Pakistani society. I wanted to find a way to start those conversations. Inspired by the strength and determination of the women I met at The Nest i/o, I decided to make an animated heroine whose superpower would be the ability to talk about the least discussed topics in our society. I named her Raaji.

My team and I began by creating one-minute animated videos about Raaji on typically taboo topics. Honor, toxic masculinity, child marriages, lack of women’s mobility, sexual harassment and women’s reproductive health, Raaji voiced it all. We thought an animated series with fictional storylines would help us ease into conversations with girls on these subjects.

When we screened our Raaji videos in classrooms all across Sindh, we realized we had opened Pandora’s box. Young girls started to ask questions — hundreds of questions. Some they asked in person, others landed in our social media inboxes while others came from phone calls, texts and emails.

 
(Courtesy of Saba Khalid)

(Courtesy of Saba Khalid)

 

We noticed that issues about reproductive health kept coming up. As a small team, we couldn’t answer these health questions 24/7. Some required the help of gynecologists and others needed psychologists. And so I wondered, how could we make this animated series into a two-way conversation? How could we connect them to the right health resources? How could we promise them complete anonymity so they could ask questions without fear of being found out?

We didn’t have the funding or the knowledge to set up a call center, so I reached out to mentors and looked for ways I could scale and sustain the direction of Raaji. I was consumed by the challenge of building a version of Raaji who was available all the time, intelligent enough to answer questions on health and hygiene, and who could provide girls with trusted information, hope and inspiration.

Had I not spent time with women entrepreneurs at a tech incubator, I would never have known that my answer would be an artificial intelligence (AI) agent. All those women using tech for social good inspired me that I could do the same.

In 2018, we extended our animated superheroine into an AI-infused chatbot that could receive anonymous queries from girls around Pakistan. Raaji had become a chatbot.

 
(Courtesy of Saba Khalid)

(Courtesy of Saba Khalid)

(Courtesy of Saba Khalid)

(Courtesy of Saba Khalid)

 

Stepping into this domain was the hardest thing to do — and it continues to be hard. I made the leap into it with a fair amount of naïveté. I didn’t realize that while a chatbot can deliver basic information, girls still need human connection and empathy more than anything else. We also were dumbfounded by the complexity of questions we got when we released our first version on the Google Play Store. As a reproductive health chatbot for Pakistani girls, we thought we’d get the most questions on menstrual health. But it turned out that girls also wanted to talk about the depression and anxiety that resulted from reproductive health problems.

And so our bot is now powered by both technology and humans. Raaji the chatbot tries to assess the question by evaluating the context of the question, but a Raaji Baaji (a human volunteer) assists by answering the question with empathy and human understanding. It will be a long time before Raaji can solve every health, hygiene and safety topic by herself, but we are on the path to make that happen one day.  

We have helped more than 200 emergency cases so far. These centered around period-related problems, sexual harassment, abuse, abortion and family pressures to get married. While we collect data on the kind of problems facing girls as it helps our train our system, we do not collect the names, phone numbers, locations or email addresses of the girls who reach out to Raaji.

(Courtesy of Saba Khalid)

(Courtesy of Saba Khalid)

Building this concept hasn’t been easy. There wasn’t a product that existed like this before. We have learned from the bot’s inherent weaknesses — from those conversations that failed because we didn’t build intelligence (content) on that topic into Raaji or because we did not have human volunteer available on the spot to answer that concern.

In the last two years, I have learnt so many different things. When I started, I didn’t know what I was doing came under the bracket of “social entrepreneurship.” I learned that fundraising for such ventures and ideas is so challenging. I discovered how to recruit employees and how to persuade them to see my vision. How to deal with constant uncertainty and failure that comes with entrepreneurship. How to balance my introverted nature and slowly become a public person. How to say “no” to financially rewarding opportunities that don’t serve my purpose. And how to let go of old habits and people that limit me.

I can’t say all of this has been an easy journey. But I can definitely say it has been a purposeful one.

I think I found the most purpose in my life through the young women who joined the Raaji team. The young women who understand the need for a product like this, who spend their nights providing assistance to other girls, who cheered me on as I pitched Raaji in room after room after room.

They keep me going as I deal with the social complexities, financial highs and lows, and personal sacrifices that go into scaling the impact of this app.



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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Saba Khalid is a storyteller, filmmaker and a social entrepreneur. She is the founder of Aurat Raaj, a women’s empowerment and education platform in Pakistan.