Meet a digital groundbreaker: Population Foundation India


End Violence has invested $10 million more to keep children #SafeOnline. Through our latest funding round, we are welcoming 14 new projects into our Safe Online portfolio – all of which are using cutting-edge technology to fight online child sexual exploitation and abuse.

Our Digital Groundbreaker series was created to introduce the End Violence community to the grantees spearheading these new projects. Each week, we are profiling a different grantee from our newest funding round, each of which was given $450,000-$750,000 to push a solution to online violence forward.

Today, we are focusing on the Population Foundation of India, which will use End Violence funding to sustain SnehAI, an artificially intelligent chatbot working to equip adolescents with the tools, education and resources they need to stay safe online. End Violence spoke with Poonam Muttreja, Executive Director Population Foundation of India, to learn more about their priorities, programme, and insights around online exploitation and abuse.

What do you feel is the biggest threat to children online?

Children are among the most active internet users and are unfortunately subject to a number of threats. There is a widespread lack of awareness among children, parents, teachers, and the general public around the growing and ever-changing nature of online child sexual exploitation and abuse.

The situation is worsened by the lack of understanding from parents, guardians and gatekeepers of online complexities, tools and platforms. The high level of digital illiteracy in India also renders vast numbers of children at an increased degree of vulnerability. Though the past several years have seen an increased number of Indian children online, this has come without any prior preparations, bringing with it an increased risk of children becoming vulnerable to online CSEA.

How will the new funding from End Violence enable you to do tackle that threat? What are the key expected results of your project?

Funding from End Violence will enable us to scale-up our AI-powered chatbot, SnehAI. Embedded on Facebook, SnehAI provides appropriate, safe and trusted information on sexual and reproductive health information to young people. Through this project, we will add new, tailored content to SnehAI’s portfolio, enabling the bot to educate children on online child sexual exploitation and abuse. The bot’s interactive content will be available in Hinglish, a combination of Hindi and English, which will reach young people in Hindi-prominent areas of India. The content will be presented in the form of quizzes, stories, and videos, using a colloquial language that is easily accessible to adolescents.

The chatbot will be promoted among its target audience in both online and on-the-ground mediums. We are expecting SnehAI to have at least one million conversations with users about child sexual exploitation and abuse during the project period. The chatbot is also expected to have 40,000 active users. We also hope to reach an additional 600 adolescents through on-the-ground promotion in communities and schools.

We are aspiring for SnehAI to become a model for others to adopt and scale-up.

What was your organisation’s most successful experience against online violence in the past?

Since 1970, Population Foundation of India has been addressing public health and population issues within the larger discourse of empowering communities. We work with the government, both at the national and state levels, and with NGOs, in the areas of family planning, reproductive and sexual health of adolescents, public health, community action for health, scaling up of successful pilots and social and behaviour change communication. This helps people make informed decisions related to their fertility, health and well-being.

Over the past decade, the Population Foundation of India has effectively used technology in its social and behaviour change communication programmes, making use of innovative and engaging media to deliver health messages to women, young people and men. We have experience in using community radio, television, integrated voice response systems and social media – and now, we are running artificial-intelligence chatbots! We leverage technology to inform and involve young people in their overall wellbeing and build scalable solutions to do so.

The SnehAI chatbot was built as an extension of our transmedia edutainment initiative Main Kuch Bhi Kar Sakti Hoon (I, a woman, can achieve anything). The early results of this project showed a huge uptake of the chatbot on social media among young people. The safe and private space provided by the chatbot gave young users confidence, and they were able to access correct information on taboo subjects. We will build on our learnings from the initial phases of SnehAI to create similar safe spaces to talk about child sexual exploitation and abuse, and engage with young users and build healthy digital habits.

What motivates you, as an individual, to work on this subject?

I spend sleepless nights thinking of the infinite access children have online to misinformation and how easy it is for them to fall victim to predatory behaviours. I have seen the effect such exposure has on children and adolescents in our work in the field.

We are happy to leverage SnehAI - our AI-powered chatbot to deal with issues around child sexual exploitation and abuse. My biggest motivation to work on this subject is the opportunity to use Population Foundation of India’s extensive experience in social behaviour change communication and innovative technology to contributing to reducing child sexual exploitation in the shorter run and eliminating it in the longer run.

With-fast rising internet usage in India – especially amongst young people and children – I am motivated by the belief that technology used in an appropriate manner can be an incredible force for transformation and change.

If you had a superpower to do one thing to end online sexual exploitation and abuse, what would it be?

That’s an interesting question! I would turn into smart AI to identify and ensure any inappropriate and inaccurate information about child sexual exploitation and abuse vanishes off the internet before it gets posted. As an AI, I would ensure perpetrators are identified and prosecuted instantly.