The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A TV host in Ivory Coast asked a sex offender to show his technique on a mannequin. Women fought back.

An activist holds a sign reading “My outfit is not an invitation” during a protest against the TV channel Nouvelle Chaîne Ivoirienne on Sept. 1 in Abidjan, the commercial capital of Ivory Coast. (Sia Kambou/AFP/Getty Images)
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DAKAR, Senegal — The television host introduced the man as a convicted sex offender. Then he beckoned his guest to a mannequin: “Can you show us how you committed rape?”

What came next outraged viewers in Ivory Coast, who roundly blasted the segment of a prime-time show this week and urged the West African country’s broadcasting watchdog to punish the production team.

By Thursday, a petition demanding the ouster of Yves de M’Bella, a popular commentator in the nation of 27 million, and sanctions against his employer, Nouvelle Chaîne Ivoirienne (NCI), had amassed nearly 50,000 signatures.

Protesters surrounded the channel’s office in the commercial capital, Abidjan, holding signs that read: “Don’t trivialize rape.” Telecom authorities suspended de M’Bella from the airwaves for 30 days. A court convicted him of glorifying rape, imposed a fine and ordered him not to leave Abidjan for a year under a suspended prison sentence.

As protests shake Senegal, women fear that sexual assault victims will be silenced

The episode reflects a broader problem, activists say. As in the United States — where an analysis showed that less than 1 percent of estimated rapes and attempted rapes bring a felony convictionfew perpetrators are thought to land behind bars in Ivory Coast, where reliable data on sexual assault is scarce. Women in both nations have told researchers that a lack of confidence in the criminal justice system has deterred them from reporting sexual assault.

In addition, victims in Ivory Coast often face shame and financial burden when they come forward: They must pay for the medical tests that collect DNA evidence, which cost about $90 in a nation where a quarter of the people live on less than $2 a day.

“This is rape culture, and it is atrocious,” said Benedicte Joan, president of Stop Au Chat Noir, an Ivorian group fighting to end sexual assault.

The name of her organization — which translates to “Stop the black cat” — is a reference to a grim term that girls in Ivory Coast hear as they grow up. “Black cat” is code for men who break into women’s bedrooms, she said, and people say it like a punchline.

The lurid television segment this week was an extension of that attitude, she said.

“The people laughing in the studio, the people who wrote the segment, the people who approved it — they’re all part of it,” Joan said. “This wasn’t an isolated thing with one host.”

In the Monday segment, de M’Bella led his guest, whom he described as a “former rapist,” to a mannequin under bright stage lights. The man had served two years in prison.

“Come with me,” the host said. “The camera will follow you.”

De M’Bella proceeded to move the dummy into different positions. He invited the offender to demonstrate a series of attacks.

He asked if victims had ever “enjoyed” the violence. He referred to assault as “making love.” He inquired: How can women avoid rape? (Advocates were quick to respond on social media: Women “avoid” rape when assailants choose not to commit it.)

All the while, the audience chuckled.

The clip blazed across Twitter as Ivorians shared their disgust: “It’s not a damn game,” someone posted. “We are talking about lives destroyed.”

De M’Bella apologized in a statement, saying he was “sincerely sorry to have shocked everyone while trying to raise awareness.”

He was promptly dropped from hosting the Miss Ivory Coast beauty pageant on Saturday.

NCI said it regretted the sequence and would not air it again. Ivory Coast’s audiovisual authority issued a two-page statement condemning it.

Punishing one man isn’t enough to overhaul the thinking that allowed that segment to air, said Désirée Deneo, secretary general of the Ivorian League for Women’s Rights. A coalition of activists is calling for a national focus on sex education, including television specials that focus on healthy intimacy and consent.

“Promoting and praising rape on television is shocking,” Deneo said, “but we are in a society where the culture of rape is banal. We must send the message that this should not be normal.”

Borso Tall contributed to this report.

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