“Many people end up giving up treatment, and the virus threatens the entire society.”
December 2017—In 2010, Nicolas Vako, 55, returned to his hometown of Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, after working 20 years for the International Committee of the Red Cross and traveling all over Africa and Eastern Europe. He decided to set up a crab restaurant, a specialty from his wife’s village.
But as a former human rights officer, Vako was dismayed by the disastrous conditions of people living with HIV and felt compelled to take action. After consulting with an international nonprofit organization and former partners, in 2015, he created a network: the Union Against HIV/Hepatitis/Tuberculosis Co-infection (UNICO), a coalition of nearly 40 local associations that represents members of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community, drug users and sex workers.
“A heterosexual Ivorian has a 3.1 percent risk of being contaminated by the HIV/AIDS virus. Many LGBT are being denied access to health care centers,” said Vako. “As a consequence, many people end up giving up treatment, and the virus threatens the entire society. To fight effectively against pandemics, we must not leave any reservoir of population for viruses, which is why we want access to health care facilities for all, regardless of their sexual orientation.”
Because the Ivorian mainstream media has low coverage of HIV/AIDS issues, Vako learned to communicate effectively and advocate for human rights using social media and other online outlets last year as part of USAID’s Voice Up! program.
Launched in 2016, Voice Up! works to help civil society in Côte d’Ivoire communicate effectively and advocate for human rights, including the rights of LGBT communities. The program, part of USAID’s Human Rights for All project, is implemented by Internews, an international NGO.
“Through Human Rights for All, the Voice Up! program has finally allowed us to be heard, to master our communication on this delicate subject without triggering the usual polemics of the past,” said Vako.
Vako and his team learned how to create Facebook and Twitter accounts, use hashtags to spread messages, frame photos, and create short videos with subtitles for social media. UNICO then developed a campaign based on video testimonies from witnesses of injustice. The testimonies, complete with photos and short clips, were spread via social media.
One of UNICO’s first testimonies came from a young gay man from Abidjan who had difficulties accessing health care. The young man, whose nickname is “Grand Mother,” had to deal with homophobic insults and public mockery.
Voice Up! has already helped to improve human rights in Côte d’Ivoire by increasing the visibility of civil society organizations, including AmazOon of the Web(link is external), a group of women who teach other women how to generate more income through social networks. While they used to reach women in the market, one at a time, today their success story videos(link is external) have registered 185,000 views on Facebook. In addition, the Ivorian Human Rights Movement is now featured on national radio and television stations, while the NGO Espoir Handicap now regularly meets with staff at the Ministry of Construction, Housing, Sanitation and Urban Development.