How people speak about phenomena reflects how they view the world, how they think realities are shaped, and how (power)relations influence what happens.  Take a word like “respect”, or “no”?

To prevent problems like Cologne, in Belgium asylum seekers are taught “Belgian values” about sexuality and respect for women. Today we learned a judge ruled that a Belgian man who admits he raped a woman, penetrating her even though she had repeatedly said “no”, was guilty but not to punished because the “circumstances had made him lose control”. So much for “respect” and a clear interpretation of the word “no”.

Maybe words are not really my thing. I am doing some background reading on language and discourse (not my field considering my training as an economist) and I am reading this – not entirely new – publications on buzz- and fuzzwords in development edited by Andrea Cornwell and Deborah Eade. It includes a chapter in which a word count analysis is done of six British development policy documents between 1960 and 2006: the outcomes are fascinating: the word ‘gender’ first appears in the 1997 document sparking a rise in the frequency of use of the word ‘women’. In 2006 gender is hardly used but ‘women’ remain relevant, more than for example ‘rural’. The concept of ‘rights’ has a strong presence in 1997 document but is less prominent in years after. In the same chapter the authors (Naomi Alfini and Robert Chambers) reflect on keywords of the 2005 OECD Paris Declaration and identify words that are notably absent from that declaration. An eye opener as it clarifies that declaration (and aid effectiveness) is not about people, relationships, or agreements, but about performance, results and capacity to manage.  Am I surprised….

Anyway, I also learned this week that while changes in language may reflect a (shifting) paradigm, different language can also help you better communicate ideas without fundamentally changing the paradigm.

Gender, women’s rights and feminism are all words that people tend to have strong feelings about. When used to describe something, many men and women will respond that whatever is described has nothing to do with them. The words may even trigger negative reactions. So can you communicate about the ideas and experiences that generated the language of gender and gender relations, without using the words? Yes you can.

A Ugandan NGO CEDOVIP works on the prevention of violence against women, particularly partner violence found that their audiences did not respond to the language of “gender relations” and “women’s rights”. Raising Voices and CEDOVIP developed an approach based on the concept of power: fostering and drawing on the “power within” communities and activists, the program triggers critical reflection about what it means to have “power over” women and it supports the development of connections and collaboration, unleashing the “power with” to actually change behaviors and foster the “power to” make change.

The program is called SASA! An independent evaluation study found significant positive differences between communities in which SASA!  was implemented and similar communities were it had not (yet) been implemented: for example in the communities they had worked in over 75% of the men and women said partner violence was not acceptable, against a mere 25% in the control communities. And in this case ideas influence behaviors: the levels of violence against women were 52% lower in SASA! communities compared to communities in which SASA! had not been implemented. So while the ideas underpinning the SASA! are very similar to the thinking behind ‘gender relations’ and ‘women’s rights’, CEDOVI shows that changing the language can make good sense from a perspective of effective communication.