Talking about condoms, talking about rape

Over the last few days I came across a few things having to do with communicating with beneficiaries.

The first is a 4 minute video I saw on TED about selling condoms in Congo.

Amy Lockwood has a point of course. NGO advocacy messages tend to be boring and stilted. And the fact that the people who are paying the bill (i.e. donors) are not the people who are supposed to like the product (i.e. beneficiaries) certainly makes this worse. While I agree with her point that we have to tailor our communication better to the needs, expectations and – yes – desires of the people whom we want to reach, I find it very hard to imagine that UNICEF or UNAIDS would ever distribute “Rough Rider” condoms with scantily clad women on the package. After all, we are also trying to promote respect for women. But there has to be a middle ground and we should try harder to find it.

The second example is a sign I came across in Sanniquellie, Liberia, where I’m currently based.  The purpose of this sign is to tell women where they can go for help if they have been raped.

The title of this sign is “SGBV Referral Pathway”. Ouch.

Sign: "SGBV Referral Pathway"

Somehow I doubt that a communications person was involved in this ...

Not only does it use an acronym (SGBV = Sexual Gender based Violence) that is extremely technical and not explained anywhere on the sign, it also follows that acronym by two words that are not easily understood.

Considering that Liberia is a country where only half of all adults can read at all, this was probably not a very wise choice. This is a sign that is hard to understand even if you can read, but the images are completely incomprehensible if you can’t.  While certainly well intentioned, I doubt that this sign will help anyone.

Last but not least a short video from “Info as Aid” that I came across this week. It’s not directed at beneficiaries but illustrates why it is important to talk to them and to give them the information they need using a language they understand.

What are your thoughts?


  • Anna

    I just wanted to give you a bit of background information on the signboard that you have referenced above. A key component of the NRC GBV Project is the promotion and strengthening of the referral pathway for survivors of SGBV. We do this through a variety of initiatives, some of which are targeted towards non-literate women, men and youth, others to response actors like police, health workers etc and others like this billboard that are targeted to those with a basic reading level. The majority of the billboards have been placed in locations as identified by the community groups in which we have worked with for more than 2 years. Most have been planted in areas where there is a lot of ‘foot traffic’ as it is more likely that some of the people passing by are able to read, for instance many of the billboards are placed near secondary schools.

  • anna

    The material – text and images were tested in 13 communities in rural and urban Liberia, with both women, men and youth, as well as with the County GBV Task Force members in 6 counties. The final product was eventually endorsed in 2009 by all members of the GBV Task Force including the Ministry of Gender and Development. You may be surprised to know that in all of the communities that we trialed the billboard the acronym SGBV as well as the term Referral Pathway were well know and understood by the majority of those surveyed. The text under the title does provide a basic explanation, in Liberian English of the purpose of a referral pathway.

    It is worth pointing out that the use of the term GBV or SGBV has been used and promoted in Liberia by GBV actors like ARC, IRC, MSF, CCF (now Child Fund) since at least 2003 as well as in the refugee camps in Guinea since at least 2001. This has resulted in many Liberians understanding what would in other countries be a foreign term / acronym. I too was surprised by this! About a quarter of the survivors we have provided assistance to have come to us via thebillboard / posters that we have distributed, so they are having some positive impact.

  • anna

    The billboards themselves were planted in late 2009, and due to rain and sun damage, some of the images have become difficult to make out. We are in the process of recalling the billboards so they can be re painted and therefore become clearer.

    If you feel you have a better way to promote both the need to get help once the violence has taken place as well as the exact locations of where to go then by all means please do get in touch with me. I am regularly in Nimba county and can be contacted via the NRC office based in Ganta.

  • anna

    apologies for having to split comment into 3 posts…

    • Thanks, Anna. I'm always happy to be corrected, particularly when it means that something works better than what I had expected.