Community stories of women’s empowerment and gender equality
To celebrate International Women’s Day 2023, we spoke to some of our talented community members around the world. We invited them to share their own stories on women’s empowerment and gender equality. We hope you enjoy these powerful stories of strong women who are also fellow community members.
They come from different corners of the globe and have their own unique experiences to share, but they share a goal. They want people to know their stories so they can raise awareness about the issues women like them face. Our collective experience as linguists and humanitarians shows us that women are all too often disproportionately affected by societal factors which make them vulnerable to difficult situations. In many situations, women face barriers to education. They face language barriers and a lack of access to information in a language and format they understand. Because of this some women struggle to access the healthcare they need, know their rights, or stay safe.
- The stories below include name changes and edits in line with CLEAR Global’s confidentiality and editorial practices.
- Trigger warning: this post contains references to discrimination, domestic violence, and rape, which some individuals may find distressing or emotionally challenging.
Read more on women’s rights and equity this International Women’s Day
- Read Mariana’s blog, Stop labeling women as vulnerable.
- Check out Maria’s blog on defying inequality in the translation industry.
Chandler’s story: how lack of support in her native language meant lack of justice.
Lost in translation means loss of justice: recounting domestic violence in a foreign language
One aspect of the growing trend to move abroad that often goes entirely unconceived is how easily recounting domestic violence to local authorities in a foreign country suffers the inevitable consequences of being “lost in translation.”
I took the Girona city bus from the small village I was coerced into living in. I was fleeing domestic violence with my three-month-old son – no car, no friends or family nearby, and still a struggling command of the local language, Catalan. There was no room for error, and yet, from the moment I left until the present day, the errors I made haunt my drowning need for justice.
I entered Girona city’s police station, frantically looking over my shoulder. I quietly mumbled in Catalan, asking if they had any agents that could speak in English. They must have guessed why and had me wait for Agent Elena. She was a local city police agent that specialized in domestic violence. I asked her if she spoke English, my mother tongue. She smiled and replied “no, but you speak Catalan quite well. Please, tell me what you want to report.” I reported the abuse, and I had no idea how awful it sounded as I was saying it. She reassured me that I had enough language ability in Catalan that I could express the pertinent details to a judge – little did she know that was not the case. However, because the crime was committed in the neighboring village, I needed to retell my story to the appropriate jurisdictional police: Mossos d’Esquadra.
That was when the real “loss in translation” happened. Agent Maria, the local Mossos d’Esquadra agent, overheard my struggles with the language, and even witnessed me using Google Translate to express some of the more horrific details, and yet she didn’t make any effort to double-check she could report the facts accurately, or ask follow-up questions to really understand them. A number of details were tragically lost in translation and this later became part of the fancy footwork the opposing party’s lawyer used to tear my testimony to shreds.
While there are many published stories and research about the subject, there is not enough support for women seeking and obtaining justice and therefore protection measures in a foreign country.
Chandler’s story is just one example of how accessing support and information in someone’s native language can change the course of their life.
Breaking stereotypes and ensuring fair access to information is what motivates Faria, the protagonist of our next story.
Faria’s story: breaking stereotypes and embracing equity
I aspire to create a program to get minority girls interested in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) careers by connecting them with mentors from the field, who come from similar cultural backgrounds and speak their parents’ native language.
Coming from a South Asian culture, deep-seated gender norms often confine women to their homes. For many immigrant girls, cultural expectations encourage us to find a husband instead of continuing our education or building our careers. When I shared my aspirations to pursue a career in the medical field, my peers teased me that I would never be able to achieve those dreams as a girl. My parents wanted me to follow in the footsteps of my older sister and marry, rather than build a career. Because I question the norms, I am seen as the shameful black sheep in my family. In an ironic turn of events that greatly shaped my outlook, my family insisted that I attend an all-girls high school to “preserve my modesty,” but that has only further opened my eyes to my capabilities and empowered me to embrace a career in a STEM field. Throughout high school, I participated in women’s rights events such as our annual women’s march, and attended a lecture with Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. All these events made me realize that I could create my own path despite cultural restrictions. Being an immigrant and a minority, I had a hard time voicing my concerns because I struggled with the English language. However, seeing many students and staff who were like me at my high school encouraged me to pursue higher education and build a career.
My traditional Bangladeshi parents expect me to spend my time in the kitchen, so I experiment in between preparing meals with my mother.
I plunged myself into school, working hard to get A’s while taking rigorous science classes. Additionally, I started to participate in extracurricular activities and community service. I wanted my family to see that I could live an impactful life through my studies and caring for our community, but I also feared that my future would still end as a housewife. At some point, I realized that while I love and respect my parents, I believe in myself and have decided that I want to pursue my own dreams by continuing my education and becoming a physician.
I aspire to create a program to get minority girls interested in STEM careers by connecting them with mentors from the STEM field. Leveraging other successful women from similar backgrounds and languages to speak with South Asian young girls would be a tool to help combat these harmful cultural expectations. I believe mentorship programs can help empower young girls and change outdated gender roles. The most difficult part of this project would be engaging with girls who struggle with the local language. Without language, it will be hard to help them see the benefits of getting girls involved in STEM careers; deeply held cultural beliefs are hard to change with language barriers. Fortunately, I had a mentor to speak my native language to help me progress in my studies and career. I would love to give this same chance to girls who are struggling with the local language.
Peace’s story centers on protecting young girls and overcoming cultural barriers.
“The fear of who is next lingers in the mind of every parent.”
Just like it was yesterday, I remember the day my neighbor’s child was raped. I was a teenager then and I was sitting outside chatting with my friend. Then, suddenly we saw my neighbor’s child, Monifa, cross the road from the barber’s shop to the place where we sat. She walked in an uneasy and awkward manner holding a bag of biscuits with a gloomy face.
“Monifa, are you okay?” I inquired. She looked at me and didn’t say a word. Later that day I saw my neighbor shouting and seeking help as her little daughter was bleeding. The little girl confirmed that the barber had raped her – a six-year-old child. The police arrested and detained him for some days, but he was quickly released. However, the shame and humiliation he suffered from people sent him away from our area. Monifa is now a grown woman, but her first sexual experience is a pain that she lives with all her life.
The fact that the mother acted, that the case was reported, and that the culprit was arrested is a positive indicator of the direction our society needs to take if we are to curb violence against women. On the other hand, the fact that he was released a few days later, without further charge and conviction, is a testament to the systemic and cultural obstacles on the path of seeking justice for rape survivors and ensuring that culprits are punished for their crimes.
Rape victims in my country are beginning to speak up with courage and name their abusers despite the fear of stigmatization, and reprisal, some of the reasons victims have kept quiet for so long. If we do nothing to fight rape, if the law cannot protect people, if abusers can walk freely on the streets a few days after abusing a person, soon our young daughters will be afraid to go out because of the fear and trauma of meeting face to face with their defilers.
Amnesty International reports that following the lockdown imposed to tackle the spread of COVID-19 in 2020 in Nigeria, there was an upsurge in cases of rape: “As reports of rape escalated across Nigeria, state governors declared a “state of emergency” on rape and gender-based violence. They also promised to set up a sex offenders register. But over a year since their declaration, nothing has changed.”
TWB, now part of CLEAR Global, has been advocating for over a decade to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse, especially in the aid sector. Sexual exploitation and abuse continue to occur in humanitarian contexts worldwide. We believe that prioritizing language and two-way communication can help prevent it. We worked with the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) on Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (PSEA) to make the humanitarian rules on sexual conduct clear and available in languages people can understand, so everyone knows what is acceptable.
We first developed a plain-language version of the principles. Then, we removed legal jargon and complex sentence structures to make the rules explicit and clear. Finally, we translated them into over 100 languages spoken on five continents – from Amharic to Vietnamese.
We want to thank our community members and writers, Chandler, Faria, and Peace, for sharing their stories of life’s inequity as women. It takes courage and compassion to speak up and share your own traumatic experiences for the sake of helping others. We are honored they have chosen TWB to tell their stories.
We would love to hear your story too, and share your experience or inspiration with us on social media.
And join the TWB community today for the chance to work on projects that help embrace equity.
Contributions by Chandler Stump, Spanish to English translator and TWB Community member Peace Agbo, Igbo to English translator and TWB Community member Faria Islam, English to Bengali translator and TWB Community member