He grew up around oppressed women. Now he's fighting for their rights in a brilliant way.

Growing up in rural Kenya, Nick Oketch became acutely aware of how differently women and men were treated there.

In his small village in Siaya County, which is in the western part of Kenya, things like forced arranged marriages, wife battering, and polygamy were commonplace. Oketch's own two sisters were married off when they were only 12-years-old.

It wasn't hard for him to see how all these patriarchal practices undermined young women's development, and stifled their ability to become empowered.


This oppressive environment also didn't provide adolescents with many outlets where they could learn about reproductive healthcare. So unsurprisingly, Siaya County has the second highest HIV prevalence rates out of Kenya’s 47 counties.

Photo via Noah Terricks/Unsplash.

When Oketch made that connection, he knew he had to do something to help break the cycle.

"I had always been dreaming of a world where each and every person has the freedom to exercise their reproductive health rights without discrimination or stigmatization," writes Oketch in an email.

So in 2008, as a senior in high school, he launched the Paradigm Youth Network Organization, a nonprofit dedicated to advocating for the sexual, legal, social, and cultural rights of marginalized women, children, and men in Kenya. By challenging outdated societal traditions and attitudes, it aims to build a safer environment for the people of Kenya, especially the marginalized groups who are most threatened by the status quo.

The organization offers services like training and empowerment workshops, access to reproductive health information, and support for communities who may not have access to sexual and reproductive healthcare.

And since adolescents are the most at risk when it comes to the effects of lacking sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), Paradigm targets them specifically. They've reached over 8,000 adolescents to date.

Masaai young women in Kenya. Photo by Ninara/Flickr.

However, sexual health is a delicate subject, and Oketch knew there were many more youths who were afraid to ask for help. So he utilized technology and social media to bridge that gap.

He named his creation LucyBot. LucyBot is a bot that lives in Facebook Messenger and offers sexual and reproductive health information and advice to young people who might otherwise not seek it out. She's filled with verified facts that she then relays to users who can ask her whatever questions they might have on the subject.

Oketch actually developed the idea out of conversations he had with leaders from Women Deliver — a nonprofit that bolsters people who are fighting for gender equality and focused on SRHR — of which he is also a member.

"Chatting with Lucy is just like chatting with any other friend on the platform [except she's probably much more knowledgable], and it is important for us to make the user experience fun and informative," explains Oketch.

What are the most common sexually transmitted infections? Click on this link and #ask LucyBot: m.me/LucyBot2017

Posted by LucyBot, Your Sexual Health Rights Buddy on Thursday, August 23, 2018

So far, LucyBot's reached over 1,5000 Kenyan adolescents, and it's still only in beta testing.

LucyBot is now in final stages of development, but the last test is perhaps the most important one.

They're testing her on 1,000 students from three counties in Kenya through a project called the `De-stigmatizing Sex Education in Kenya through Artificial Intelligence (AI) Initiative.' The project involves training 30 other students to conduct research and perform community outreach to gather a range of questions that adolescents might ask LucyBot. They'll then populate the bot with as much relevant information as possible, and see if she's able to answer the 1,000 students' questions satisfactorily.

If all goes according to plan, they'll officially launch, targeting the 18-25 demographic via Facebook and other media campaigns.

Oketch's hope is that LucyBot will encourage adolescents to speak up and demand the sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights they deserve, but he also recognizes the responsibility shouldn't all be on them.

Photo via Esteban Castle/Unsplash.

"We need to work on training the health workers to create a friendly environment in the health facilities so that young people can be more comfortable visiting to get the services they need," he writes.

"Also parents should be enlightened to be more free in talking about reproductive health topics to their adolescent children, so that they don’t resort to getting information from peers which can be misleading."

While LucyBot is poised to make a huge difference in the lives of Kenyan adolescents, many in rural Kenya don't have regular access to the internet. So Paradigm's doing something about that, too.

"We are starting a youth resource center with computers and mobile phones  to ensure that youths who don't have mobile phones or internet can interact with LucyBot for free," explains Oketch. They're currently running a fundraiser to help pay for the equipment. (You can donate to it here.)  

In the meantime, Oketch is continuing to advocate for sexual and reproductive health and rights by imploring policymakers to improve access to family planning options for Kenyans in rural areas.

On the ground, he's aiming to positively impact the sexual and reproductive health of 2,000 Kenyans each year. And now that he's got an innovative information bot in his corner, he should have no problem reaching his goal.

Photo via Oketch.

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Disney has come under fire for problematic portrayals of non-white and non-western cultures in many of its older movies. They aren't the only one, of course, but since their movies are an iconic part of most American kids' childhoods, Disney's messaging holds a lot of power.

Fortunately, that power can be used for good, and Disney can serve as an example to other companies if they learn from their mistakes, account for their misdeeds, and do the right thing going forward. Without getting too many hopes up, it appears that the entertainment giant may have actually done just that with the new Frozen II film.

According to NOW Toronto, the producers of Frozen II have entered into a contract with the Sámi people—the Indigenous people of the Scandinavian regions—to ensure that they portray the culture with respect.

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Though there was not a direct portrayal of the Sámi in the first Frozen movie, the choral chant that opens the film was inspired by an ancient Sámi vocal tradition. In addition, the clothing worn by Kristoff closely resembled what a Sámi reindeer herder would wear. The inclusion of these elements of Sámi culture with no context or acknowledgement sparked conversations about cultural appropriation and erasure on social media.

Frozen II features Indigenous culture much more directly, and even addressed the issue of Indigenous erasure. Filmmakers Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, along with producer Peter Del Vecho, consulted with experts on how to do that respectfully—the experts, of course, being the Sámi people themselves.

Sámi leaders met with Disney producer Peter Del Vecho in September 2019.Sámediggi Sametinget/Flickr

The Sámi parliaments of Norway, Sweden and Finland, and the non-governmental Saami Council reached out to the filmmakers when they found out their culture would be highlighted in the film. They formed a Sámi expert advisory group, called Verddet, to assist filmmakers in with how to accurately and respectfully portray Sámi culture, history, and society.

In a contract signed by Walt Disney Animation Studios and Sámi leaders, the Sámi stated their position that "their collective and individual culture, including aesthetic elements, music, language, stories, histories, and other traditional cultural expressions are property that belong to the Sámi," and "that to adequately respect the rights that the Sámi have to and in their culture, it is necessary to ensure sensitivity, allow for free, prior, and informed consent, and ensure that adequate benefit sharing is employed."

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Disney agreed to work with the advisory group, to produce a version of Frozen II in one Sámi language, as well as to "pursue cross-learning opportunities" and "arrange for contributions back to the Sámi society."

Anne Lájla Utsi, managing director at the International Sámi Film Institute, was part of the Verddet advisory group. She told NOW, "This is a good example of how a big, international company like Disney acknowledges the fact that we own our own culture and stories. It hasn't happened before."

"Disney's team really wanted to make it right," said Utsi. "They didn't want to make any mistakes or hurt anybody. We felt that they took it seriously. And the film shows that. We in Verddet are truly proud of this collaboration."

Sounds like you've done well this time, Disney. Let's hope such cultural sensitivity and collaboration continues, and that other filmmakers and production companies will follow suit.

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