A TWB Community blog post by Mariana Estrada Ávila
Mariana Estrada Ávila is a specialist in communications and human rights. She has been working with international organizations for more than ten years. In 2018 she collaborated with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in the launch of the #IndigenousWomen global campaign.
It’s time to change the narrative on vulnerability, embrace equity and make women visible
If you work in a humanitarian or development organization, it is likely you’ll have read or even written or translated many reports, projects, or press releases that mention supporting a common but ambiguous group: “the most vulnerable people.’ And if we look deeper into this vague concept, we find that the first in line are women, followed by children, Indigenous Peoples, migrants, and people with disabilities, among others.
However, in many interviews, rural women, indigenous women, black women, migrant women, and women with disabilities, have agreed that women are not vulnerable people per se. Needless to say, the same goes for Indigenous Peoples, children, migrants, and people with disabilities. As medical doctor and indigenous woman Mariam Wallet Aboubakrine explains, they are people who have been placed in situations of vulnerability by different factors, such as a lack of respect for their rights, marginalization, discrimination, and violence, among others.
Why is the term “vulnerable” problematic?
First and foremost, because it invisibilizes. The problem with the use of such a vague and generalized term as “the most vulnerable people” is that it makes invisible the population that we are trying to prioritize and it ignores the causes of their vulnerable situation. Who knows who you are really addressing when you address such a heterogeneous group? How can you make programs that really help to solve their challenges if the diverse and complex issues and roots are ignored?
Second, the term “vulnerable” carries a negative connotation. It implies that the problem lies with them, or that certain people have some intrinsic characteristics or traits that make them vulnerable. This point has already repeatedly been underlined in the public health sector. The article ‘Vagueness, power, and public health: use of ‘vulnerable‘ in public health literature’ (2019) highlights that the term the most vulnerable people tends to put the burden on the people who are affected, implying that even if programs, policies, and processes change, their vulnerability will remain.
Women are not born vulnerable
Half of the world’s population is not born with fewer capabilities or inherent vulnerability. The systematic lack of respect for women’s human rights, and its intersection with other factors, such as violence, discrimination, or marginalization place women in complex situations of vulnerability.
For example, see this report published in 2021 on Complaint and feedback mechanisms: Effective communication is essential for true accountability in Nigeria. TWB noted that a lack of access to information in a crisis context could reinforce a situation of vulnerability, whereby women in particular, who often have less access to education and less opportunity to learn other languages, could be disproportionately affected by the lack of information in their own language.
Women around the world have advocated for programs and initiatives that address the root causes that can limit the development of their full potential, rather than an approach that builds on, and reinforces an assumption that they will always need assistance, and can’t lead change. As Pratima Gurung from Nepal underlines, it is important to recognize and make visible the potential of women to contribute to the development of communities and society.
Using the power of language to change the narrative on vulnerability
What can we do? No one knows the power of words better than those who use language as their main tool of work. First, it is important to promote a general reflection within our organizations. Through our use of language, are we reinforcing society’s tendency to position women as “vulnerable”? After all, language is one of the most essential components of social dynamics.
Secondly, instead of using “the most vulnerable people” as a catch-all, let us try to identify and name the groups we are really referring to. Let us think about the causes that have put them in this situation. As an example, instead of saying “this COVID-19 pandemic response program will help the most vulnerable people” we can try “this program will help women who were disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic“. This allows us to clearly visualize our target population and the causes that have put them in a vulnerable situation.
As writers, translators, and communicators we have the power to change the narrative around vulnerability and thus contribute to reinforcing and making visible that there is something behind this condition – that vulnerability is not inherent to women or other people.
It is important not to forget that a human rights approach to language means focusing on the people and their dignity, rather than labeling them.
About TWB and CLEAR Global
Translators without Borders (TWB) is a global community of over 100,000 language volunteer translators and language specialists offering language services to humanitarian and development organizations worldwide.
TWB is part of CLEAR Global, a US-based nonprofit that also comprises CLEAR Tech and CLEAR Insights. CLEAR Global helps people get vital information and be heard, whatever language they speak. We do this through research and scalable language technology solutions that improve two-way communication with communities that speak marginalized languages.
We believe in increasing equity for all people, especially those that are disproportionately affected by language barriers. We endeavor, in our communications, to amplify voices that are marginalized due to a lack of resources in their language. We want to create systematic change in the way the world communicates. This means putting people at the center of our programs and prioritizing humanity and dignity. As a nonprofit, we’re guided by the humanitarian principles of humanitarian aid which means delivering lifesaving assistance to people in need, without discrimination (UNOCHA). Learn more about this important work at clearglobal.org.
Read more on women’s rights and equity this International Women’s Day
- Read our TWB Community stories of women’s empowerment and gender equality.
- Check out Maria’s blog on defying inequality in the translation industry.
Guest post written by Mariana Estrada, English, and French to Spanish translator and TWB community member