There are more than 6 million ”untouchables”, Dalits, living in Nepal today. Branded worthless from the day they are born, they are shunned by society, treated inhumanely and allowed to carry out only the most lowly of jobs, such as the cleaning of human waste and digging of graves. Because they are deemed polluting, people even avoid their shadow. Dalit women, who are frequently raped and sexually assaulted, are an exception to this rule.
So how does one effectively raise awareness among a western public of the injustices faced by this voiceless group? In addition to getting the attention of the Finnish public, we were also requested to encourage people to send email appeals to the Government, urging them to prioritize Dalit rights in Finnish-Nepali development cooperation. And all of this on a shoestring budget. This was one of the tougher briefs we’d received in a long time.
We turned to Facebook, the voice of a nearly a billion people, and one of the most important, personal communication channels of our time. We asked the five most popular Finnish celebrities to donate their Facebook profiles to five Dalits from Nepal. We then brought to life the daily events of six year old Babita (pictured below) and four other untouchables, turning their stories in to status updates that pop-stars like Anna Puu (below) shared with their large following. The campaign was activated with the stars changing their profile pictures to photos of their supported Dalit, and over three days, their status updates were suddenly very different:
A group of uppercaste men came to our house and beat us because my brother went near the well. Father is not speaking. I have a cut above my eye, it aches.
Again a long day in the rice field. I also looked after my sister and caught a rat for our evening meal. I am too tired to cry now. Still I feel like weeping.
People reacted very strongly to the updates and the Dalits received supportive, encouraging replies from thousands of fans. Spontanious discussions erupted across the web and during the first 24 hours, more than 3000 people signed and sent appeals to the Finnish Government - 6000 had signed on within 72 hours. Many individuals also wanted to do more, and so they donated their own profiles to one of the five Dalits. The campaign was covered by many media outlets and discussed on morning TV shows. The appeal was finally also delieverd in person to the Development Minister, who welcomed the public support. Last week, A Voice for the Voiceless was also chosen by Facebook as one of the most inventive campaigns of the year. (You can also vote on it!)
The idea was simple, the celebrity ask was easy to execute, the cost was next to nil. Most importantly, the campaign effectively raised awareness of Dalit rights in a human, dignified manner. We hope the campaign will be replicated and bring us one step closer to ending one of the most oppressive systems in the history of mankind.
*Mari Tikkanen is the founder and Managing Director of M4ID. M4ID's mission is to leverage new communications technology for development and health.