For every new response, we need the right words to fight sexual abuse
I work for Translators without Borders, an organization that highlights the importance of language and clear communication. I am blessed to work with colleagues who expose me every day to subtle linguistic and cultural differences. Some of those differences result in hilarious misunderstandings, others are more challenging. They always point to the importance of choosing our words with care.
I was reminded of that again last week when I stood in front of a room full of my multicultural professional peers to discuss sexual abuse. I suddenly found myself acutely aware of the need to get my words right to avoid embarrassing myself or offending the audience.
100 Translations to Prevent Sexual Exploitation and Abuse
Understanding what sexual exploitation and abuse mean in a humanitarian emergency is not as simple as it seems. For local staff, who may never have worked for humanitarian organizations before, it can be even more complicated. Principles aimed at preventing sexual exploitation and abuse contain new ideas about power relationships, new terms to understand, and new rules and responsibilities to learn and put into practice. Providing the information in a language that local staff can understand is the least we can do and an important first step toward addressing the problem.
In collaboration with the UN’s Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), Translators without Borders (TWB) developed a plain-English version of the key humanitarian messages on preventing sexual exploitation and abuse. The benefit of a plain-English version is twofold:
- It promotes wider understanding, particularly among those with limited English proficiency.
- It removes ambiguity and legal terminology, increasing the chances of an accurate translation into other languages. For example, we replaced legalese like “constitute acts of gross misconduct and are therefore grounds for termination of contract” with “humanitarian workers can be disciplined – even fired – for unacceptable behavior in relation to sex”.
Distribution of the 100 Translations
We then translated the plain-English version into more than 100 languages, and started to distribute them to communities around the world.
A sudden-onset crisis often mobilizes people who have never thought about sexual abuse or power dynamics in their regular day jobs. The new local staff may come from a context where going to sex workers is commonplace, or where informal exchanges and bribes, including transactional sex, are part of getting things done. And often they live in a hierarchy where reporting one’s peers or seniors is dangerous.
We need to explain in clear language that these practices are forbidden in the humanitarian context, and that staff must report them. In translation, there are compromises in this process – is it better to find a word with no stigma or a word that will be more widely understood? For example, while the term “sex worker” is a more empowering term, we found that “prostitute” is more widely understood, despite its negative connotations. And if terms are gendered, have we chosen words that clearly indicate that sexual abuse may include sexual abuse of men? Are we sure the words we’ve chosen are neither so crude that they offend nor so euphemistic that they are incomprehensible?
Working with Partners to Ensure the 100 Translations are Effective
Since the launch of this joint IASC-TWB project in 2018, TWB’s team of translators and supporters has worked hard to produce accurate translations, which have then been reviewed and validated by local humanitarian staff from across the world. Our local reviewers have played an essential role, offering specific local terms, checking suitability, and adjusting translations to reflect local dialect. That is why, for example, we have several Arabic and Spanish language versions, as well as audio versions for Rohingya and Chittagonian.
We know that 100 languages is a drop in the ocean. But for each new multilingual humanitarian crisis, we hope to build the portfolio to meet the needs of newly engaged humanitarian staff.
How to start using the 100 Translations to Prevent Sexual Exploitation and Abuse
The key messages are just a start. Crisis-affected communities need to understand what behaviour from humanitarians is unacceptable. We may need to deliver the message in more hard-to-source languages and also in audio or pictorial formats. Staff training packages must be in languages that staff understand. And, of course, when someone is exploited or abused, they must be able to report in the language they are most comfortable in and receive support in that language.
You can help make sure that humanitarians understand what Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (PSEA) is and what it means for them. Please join us in this effort by distributing the translations to your colleagues, making sure your training is in languages they truly understand, and providing new translations in additional languages.
You can find more information about this project, and the growing number of translations, here.