The Rising FemTech Industry and Egypt’s Sexual Health Movement
10, 20, or 30 years from now, most will remember 2020 as the year when the entire world went into lockdown due to COVID-19. Everyday social interactions were halted and the normalcy of life as we know it changed forever. However, a large number of Egyptian youth will remember it as the year when Egypt’s feminist presence re-emerged.
What was later described as the Egyptian #MeToo movement began as an anonymous tip sent to an online feminist platform calling out a serial harasser. What followed was a barrage of stories and testimonies of sexual violence allegations through social media. The bravery and candor of the women who participated in the unorganized campaign caused uproar across the nation. Although this wave of protests primarily took place online due to lockdown, its impact reverberated throughout Egypt and elsewhere, making national and international headlines.
Given the lockdown and ongoing pandemic, technology (especially social media), was indispensable to this campaign in 2020.
The lack of access to the physical public sphere resulted in a collective resort to mobile phones and social media for information, news, and awareness about the movement that was slowly but surely ensuing. Technology (especially social media) was the key tool driving the momentum of the movement forward, and many continued to view it as a more convenient space for solidarity and assembly following the period of May-June 2020.
While many platforms shed light on sexual violence allegations presented to them anonymously, an interesting development in the wake of this movement was the emergence of broader conversations around women’s sexual and reproductive health (SRH), and with that, SRH-specific platforms across social media.
Several of these platforms later embarked on a journey of formalization and registered as FemTech companies. This is a particularly difficult journey because it requires platforms to overcome several bureaucratic hurdles. For example, the platform must fall outside the umbrella of NGOs or CSOs (which are not popular in Egypt) and demonstrate an ability to scale-up and become operable beyond the scope of regular activities on social media, as well as secure access to funding or investment to effectively transform the platform.
With this development, awareness surrounding the complexities and facts of violence against women was no longer relegated to the usual spaces dedicated to similar causes; new stakeholders – now formalized FemTech companies – joined the conversation as well.
In this piece, I draw on personal experience to provide a brief introduction to FemTech and assess the role of the rising industry during and after the 2020 online movement.
WHAT IS FEMTECH?
FemTech, or “female technology” is defined as any products, services, or software that utilizes technology to deliver solutions for women’s health issues. Generally, FemTech offers solutions to help with SRH, period-tracking, fertility, pregnancy, and more. (Applications on that notify you when “your period is 3 days late,” or prompt you to log your symptoms for the day, are considered FemTech).
In the Egyptian context, I would classify online platforms as subsidiaries of FemTech and as providers of similar services or access to women. What such platforms lack in personalization is mitigated by the fact that they still serve a part of the mandate of FemTech, which is to provide or deliver solutions for women’s health issues.
One example here is The Sex Talk Arabic, which is currently one of the leading online SRH platforms and communities in the MENA region. The Sex Talk Arabic was able to overcome issues with registration, registering formally as an NGO and providing its audience with extensive information, advice, and guides related to a wide variety of topics.
Operating way before 2020, the platform is considered a pioneer in the online SRH environment. What started as a community-based group evolved into a more cohesive educational platform which streamlines all their information in Arabic, paving the way for the plethora of platforms that emerged in the following years.
PERSONAL REFLECTION: THE IMPORTANCE OF FEMTECH
The proliferation of and need for information on women’s bodies, overall health, and rights became one of the most discussed topics on social media and media outlets between 2020 and until today. FemTech plays a role in the dissemination of such content, knowledge and information having influenced the course of the sexual rights movement in Egypt and rising dependence on social media as an outlet for SRH issues.
As a previous researcher and community manager in a leading FemTech company in the MENA region, I have witnessed this dependency first-hand, especially in connection with medical and health-related advice. During my time in the company, I learned how much more comforting and accessible it is for women to utilize their phones or devices to source information, anonymously or not. Online interactions remove the awkwardness, shame, and potential (micro)aggression of going to a doctor or health professional to check-up.
In my role at the company, I was responsible for regularly responding to women’s direct messages – some sought medical advice, others simply reassurance. The common denominator between most of the messages was the fear and need for anonymity and discretion in sourcing the information. Some women (and even men) would go as far as creating new anonymous accounts specifically to contact the platform’s account about general inquiries, concerns, or comments about the content disseminated on the page. The availability of FemTech solutions made it possible to address the fear instilled within so many individuals around the topics of SRH.
PROBLEMS WITH ONLINE SRH PLATFORMS
FemTech solutions are increasingly evolving to serve as a primary source of information and medical and professional advice for patients, rather than be complementary to physical SRH services and resources that exist in Egypt. While this has mitigated issues like access and shame surrounding previously taboo topics, online solutions do not and cannot substantially replace the role of medical professionals and healthcare providers when it comes to SRH knowledge or education. This all-or-nothingness of online vs. physical SRH services carries a potential danger in cases where generalizations are inapplicable or medical advice is provided from non-medical professionals.
1. WHO HAS ACCESS TO FEMTECH?
The role of the internet, social media, and FemTech as primary sources of mobilization and subsequent sexual education and information in 2020 means that issues of accessibility, equality, and overall tech infrastructure in Egypt cannot be ignored.
Technological infrastructure in Egypt is generally lacking and reflects the gendered, classed, and demographic discrepancies already in place. According to DataReportal, while the total number of social media users increased by 17% between 2020 and 2021, the total number of social media users in Egypt remains approximately at 47.4% as of 2021, relative to the total population of 103.3 million in January 2021. Additionally, only a third of social network users in Egypt are women. These statistics show trends of inequality in accessing the internet and social media more specifically.
2. LANGUAGE BARRIERS
Language barriers on the internet impede access to resources, knowledge, and information online. This is further exacerbated by the prevalence of data voids. Data voids describe a phenomenon in which search inquiries or queries become manipulated and convoluted with political or ideological agendas. Particularly affecting results in languages other than English, data voids result in findings characterized by misinformation and bias. A 2018 report investigating data voids in connection with female genital mutilation (FGM) showed that found massive data voids in governorates such as Al Sharkeya, Al Qalyubeya, and Al Dakahlia, where FGM is widely and illegally practiced, demonstrating how demographics also play a role in the prevalence of data voids. Given this concern, an overreliance on online sources for SRH-related information is currently not preferable.
3. INDIVIDUAL OR COLLECTIVE PROBLEM?
SRH platforms and those involved in them work tirelessly to fill a gap that should be substantiated by medical professionalism and policy adjustments that do not seem to be adequately or appropriately in place in the Egyptian context.
Despite this, there are still concerns over how the SRH field can grow, adapt, and adjust to accommodate the needs of individuals in their everyday lives. An individualistic approach to SRH rights and education views SRH as an isolated health concern that can be resolved through individual efforts, when in reality it is a public health concern that must be addressed through wider policies and reforms. The lack of personalization that platforms offer and generalization that they rely on to cater to a wider group of people simply cannot replace public policy and public health reforms.
Given the infrastructural issues and lack of safe practices channels in Egypt with respect to SRH services and knowledge, FemTech is a welcome alternative. Yet FemTech alone cannot fully replace public nation-wide services at scale. In light of the above-mentioned intersectional issues, there are multiple layers and barriers for Egyptian women, preventing them from the ability to benefit fully from such solutions designed to help and serve them.
Ultimately, SRH is a public health issue. Gender inequality, discrimination, and violence are public health issues. To sufficiently and multidimensionally address SRH and fully understand the psychosocial, cultural, and political implications that structure this component of the health sector, it is imperative that fundamental changes take place in education, accessibility, and infrastructure, ensuring that safe practicing channels are available to those seek them.