Language Can Help All Voices Be Heard

Women with firewood

International Women’s Day (IWD) is celebrated across the globe on 8 March each year. It is a day when we highlight the achievements of women around the world. A time of celebration, it is also a time to push for more equality, especially in terms of gender parity. A collective effort is needed to achieve this. By challenging stereotypes and bias, we can make a positive difference.

The IWD theme for 2018 is Press for Progress. The theme acknowledges that progress towards gender parity is being made, but that the progress varies throughout the world, and we must continue to work hard. #PressforProgress #Timeisnow.

Across all regions, women are more likely to live in extreme poverty than men… The culture of gender-based poverty, abuse and exploitation has to end with a new generation of equality that lasts.

UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka on the occasion of International Women’s Day 2018.

Translators without Borders (TWB) is well placed to understand the unique challenges of women in crisis. While a humanitarian emergency affects everyone, experience shows that women often have bigger mountains to climb. This is in part because of the difficulties in communicating as a marginalized woman in crisis.

Accessibility and Relevance to Women

TWB has looked at the impact humanitarian crisis has on women. In recent studies about communication barriers encountered by humanitarian responders, conducted in Nigeria and Bangladesh, our team found that gender plays a big part in increasing vulnerability.

For example, comprehension of information tends to be much lower with women than men in crisis. Low-literacy levels compound communication challenges and where literacy is concerned, the gender gap can be striking. For example, in Borno state in north-eastern Nigeria, our team interviewed women living in camps for people displaced by violence. Only nine percent of the women who were non-native Hausa or Kanuri speakers and who did not have a formal education were able to understand written Hausa or Kanuri – the languages most commonly used by humanitarian responders when delivering aid.

Students, Rohingya, Education, International Women's Day
Students in a refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

Low levels of formal education for women also exacerbates the difficulty of finding females who can interpret or translate in an emergency, widening the communication gap that women face.

This leads us to consider how female issues are communicated in situations where women are vulnerable such as in conflict scenarios where women may have suffered abuse. Having female interpreters available and being aware of the appropriate language to use or taboos around topics related to women, is vital. Women often encounter difficulties communicating with humanitarian responders, not only because of language issues but because context or references used are not appropriate to them.

Rohingya Women Affected by Crisis

In the Cox’s Bazar district of Bangladesh, where the Rohingya refugee crisis continues to keep over half a million Rohingya men, women, and children living in extreme poverty in makeshift camps, and lacking basic services, communication barriers are contributing to the vulnerability of women.

The Rohingya language is one of the most marginalized in the world. It is an oral language without a standardized or internationally recognized written script, and so calls for new approaches to translation. Literacy and education levels are traditionally low so finding female Rohingya speakers with strong English skills has proven particularly problematic and health issues can worsen when women can’t or won’t communicate with a doctor. Fear, shame, and stigma keep them from accessing the health care they need – putting them in an even more vulnerable situation.

“Rape is being used as a weapon in conflict areas and it has to be stopped. But it’s not only about rape victims or abuse, it is also about the dignity of women who deserve to have a safe life.” 

Raisa Sultana, lawyer working on human rights issues in Chittagong, Bangladesh. 

New Approaches

When illiteracy levels are high, text alone is of limited value. Understanding improves in this context when pictures are used, but audio content in the right language is by far the most effective way to disseminate information. And more effective communication leads to more effective aid. Picture messaging and pre-recorded audio files for loudspeakers and radio are urgently called for to assist with the complex political and humanitarian crisis taking place in Cox’s Bazar. Since there is almost no translation capacity in Rohingya, TWB is acting fast and innovating to improve communication between responders and the Rohingya people.

Communication is core to ensuring humanitarian responders are effectively reaching women caught in a crisis. Continuing to #PressforProgress, we can make a difference even in the most dire situations. On this International Women’s Day, and every day, we speak up for women in crisis and TWB will continue to work with humanitarian responders to give women a voice by ensuring they have access to information in a language and format they can understand.

If you work for a humanitarian organization and you would like to partner with TWB to ensure your programs are in the relevant languages, contact us here.

By Angela Eldering, TWB Volunteer 

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