Most women who have been through the horrific ordeal of a violent assault have a number of compelling reasons for preferring to remain anonymous - fear of revenge, stigma and a desire to forget are some of them. Maimouna Konè (her real name) is a remarkable exception. She's sitting in front of a 2,500-strong crowd filling up the concrete tiers of the Palace de la Culture - a huge amphitheatre in Côte d'Ivoire's capital, Abidjan - holding up a blue banner that says: 'Brave femme, leve-toi contre la violence!' (Brave woman, stand up against violence!). Maimouna is, indeed, a brave woman.
She comes from Daloa, a big town in the country's mid-western region. One day, while walking in her family's field with a friend and her baby, she saw the son of a plantation owner cutting down bananas from their trees with a machete. When they confronted the boy, he swung his knife at Maimouna, slicing her cheek. She passed out, while her friend attempted to escape, running with her baby on her back. After chasing them, the boy lunged at the woman, injuring her and killing the baby.
Today, wearing a pink headscarf to cover the scar, Maimouna is telling her heart-rending story to a crowd gathered for the launch of a new campaign, the name of which is an imperative she's already lived up to, Brisons le Silence (Break the Silence). Run by the International Rescue Committee (IRC), the initiative aims to tackle violence against women and girls by working to change widespread attitudes and social norms that allow violence to happen and make it more difficult for 'survivors' to come forward.
The very word 'survivor' is used deliberately to dispel the passivity and hopelessness usually associated with the term 'victim'. This is a campaign where language matters. To shake deep-rooted assumptions about men's and women's role in relation to violence, the IRC is spreading a set of thought-provoking messages among its target audiences of young men and housewives, using a range of media, including radio and TV spots, Facebook and Twitter, billboards, posters and mobile phones. The key concepts are distilled into catchy expressions tailored for either men or women, including 'Protect women, it is your business', 'We are a team against violence', 'Brave woman, stand up against violence!' and 'There is no place for violence in our home!'.
In a bid to reach the broadest audience possible, the campaign also provides simple and amusing ways to participate, from SMS trivia contests to talk-back radio programmes. "In a country with 12 million adults and almost 15 million mobile phone subscriptions, mobiles can be an incredibly effective campaigning tool," explains Virginia Williams, the media consultant who designed this initiative.
But behind all of this 'feel-good' fun, the campaign strategy is rooted in real science, as Monika Bakayoko-Topolska, who oversees the IRC women's programmes in Côte d'Ivoire, explains. "Research has shown that social norms have a profound influence on how women are treated in society and in the home, and that social marketing campaigns promoting positive norms can ultimately change attitudes and behaviour for the better over the long term."
A decade of on-and-off civil war, which broke out in 2002 and seems to have ended after last year's flare of post-election violence, has taken an enormous toll on millions of Ivorians, and women have borne the brunt of it. Research conducted by the IRC in 2010 found that three in five women in rural Côte d'Ivoire had experienced some form of violence over their lifetime and that, in the overwhelming majority of cases, the perpetrator had been a male partner. It also found that domestic violence remains largely invisible because of social norms discouraging people from reporting it.
This veil of secrecy, woven from fear of retaliation, stigma, and social customs, is what the IRC campaign aims to break through. "Shifting deeply-ingrained attitudes is never easy, but we want to tell people that there's something simple they can do today to stand up for themselves and help others do so," explains Virginia. At the campaign launch, this 'something' is illustrated by a dramatic sketch in which a woman overcomes violence with the help of a friend and the support she receives from her neighbourhood social centre. This local support network is where a new free hotline, promoted throughout the campaign, encourages women to go and seek help. "For many women this can be a first step towards a life free from abuse," says Virginia.
To help spread its message among a young audience, the IRC has also teamed up with famous Ivorian musicians, who have written a theme song for the campaign. Ivorian Reggae and Hip-Hop super-stars Kajeem and Nash are now performing on the stage of the Palace de la Culture, bringing the audience to their feet with a stirring rendition of the campaign's anthem. "Join us to break the silence. Help those who suffer out of indifference," goes one of the lines. Maimouna is singing along, and watching her shouting these words gives one a good deal of hope for the future of women in Côte d'Ivoire.
If you would like to support the campaign, you can do so by visiting and liking its Facebook page or by following and tweeting about it @BrisesleSilence.
To help raise awareness about the challenges faced by women and girls worldwide and the solutions to protect and empower them, you can also sign and share the IRC-UK's 'Wake Up' pledge at http://www.rescue-uk.org/wakeup/index.html
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