Nicolas Vako worked for the International Committee of the Red Cross for twenty years, traveling all over Africa and Eastern Europe. He left the Red Cross and returned to his home town of Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire to set up a restaurant selling “maquis de crabe,” a crab specialty from his wife’s village.
His “retirement” didn’t last long though – conditions for people with HIV/AIDS were desperate in Abidjan and Nicolas felt compelled to help after former associates sought him out for advice. He is now head of a network called the Union Against HIV/Hepatitis/Tuberculosis Co-infection (UNICO), which is a coalition of close to 40 local associations representing members of the LGBT community, drug users and sex workers.
Since Côte d’Ivoire’s media does not cover these issues adequately, Nicolas took advantage of Internews’ Voice Up! project to learn how to advocate for HIV/AIDS issues through other channels. Voice Up! helps civil society organizations to communicate effectively and advocate for human rights using social media and other online outlets.
“The Voice Up! project has come at the right time as the HIV/AIDS prevalence rate is staggering among key populations in Côte d’Ivoire,” says Nicolas. “The main cause of concern is the lack of access to health care for those in need. Those who contract the disease consider it a humiliating experience. Therefore, to avoid stigmatization, many are reluctant to seek proper treatment. Furthermore, the rare times they do receive treatment, the medical personnel are poorly trained.”
Through Voice Up!, Nicolas and his colleagues learned how to create a Facebook and Twitter presence, including the use of hash tags to spread UNICO’s messages. They received training on framing photos and creating short videos with subtitles suitable for using on social media platforms. They also learned the importance of writing stories that are missing in the mainstream Ivorian media.
UNICO developed a campaign based on testimonies that embody their advocacy. A witness (témoin) who is going through a difficult time tells their story on live video with a UNICO representative. The testimony is spread via social media with photos and short clips. The mainstream Ivorian media often uses these concrete online examples to illustrate their articles.
One of UNICO’s first testimonies came from a young gay man from Abidjan who had difficulty accessing health care. The young man, who was nicknamed “Grand Mother,” when trying to access a health facility, was denied access and had to deal with homophobic insults and public mockery. UNICO launched a petition for access to health care for LGBT people and is preparing for a press conference, which will be also shown on Facebook.
This campaign reached 80,000 people and received 700 “likes” on Facebook.
Nicolas makes sure that the stories not only point out problems but offer solutions.
Using Facebook Live, Nicolas recently organized an “exchange circle” to discuss early marriages, which remains a largely taboo subject. They shared the story of a girl who was forcibly married at the age of 12 and who committed suicide as a result. “It is a striking story that allows us to defy what was deemed as normal and refuse excuses such as ‘It is the tradition’,” says Nicolas.
In addition to training, Voice Up! offers space for organizations to hold events. Media trainer Evelyne Kaneza helps with writing press releases and contacting media outlets. The project also helped UNICO create a detailed communication plan in conjunction with 12 LGBT associations in Côte d’Ivoire.