Only Words?


Language has always been an essential agenda in sexual and reproductive health and rights, not least of all because the Cairo and Beijing agendas were so language driven. At these two conferences, the all-important switch was made from "family planning" to "sexual and reproductive health and rights." Politically, this development was vital. Semantically, it provided new scope, and not necessarily for the better. (Others on this site – including Malika Sadaa Saar and Gloria Feldt – have written about the resonance of the right and wrong language in current discourse around sexual and reproductive health and rights.)

Writing about the recent Women Deliver and the Global Safe Abortion conferences in London, Beth Frederick concluded that we need to be on the lookout for policy makers who "forget or ignore" the relevant agendas. In terms of language, I think there is an important third here: don't understand.

It did strike me at Women Deliver that some participants – including detractors – were using a language that just doesn't mean very much to anyone other than the converted and the unconvertible. In our efforts to articulate the quiddity – the essence, the correctness, the validity – of our arguments, we are confusing policy makers and the media and other prospective supporters. If Cairo was about winning language, then the following few decades seem to have been about complicating that language. And to such an extent that any decent journalist or civil servant or policy broker has switched off before we have got to the end of our second sentence.

We all know the reasons why we use such ‘complex' language: to push the agenda onwards and upwards; because we really, really (really?) need to explain the technicalities of our work; to claim the moral high ground; to impress; to discredit our detractors; to differentiate ourselves from our competitors. And the agenda and therefore language is always evolving, with new contraceptive regimes and technology, new political conquests, all of which need to be "explained."

But somewhere along the way, those of us who are promoting discussion about sexual and reproductive health and rights (snappy, huh?) seem to have become so involved, so committed, to our particular agendas, that we have stopped speaking English – or Spanish or French or Russian. With some notable exceptions, most of the briefings and reports at Women Deliver read like short, incomprehensible novellas.

There is also the polarization of our language on issues such as abortion and sex education. How on earth can we say what we really need to say on these issues without first ensuring that we have made it so very clear that we don't think this, and don't advocate that? It is too defensive, too contextualized for the outside world.

And the all important voice of "youth" has also been so sanitized that youth advocates sound like nascent civil servants rather than real young people. Do any normal young people ever really used the term "peer education," or "youth advocate" or even "reproductive health?" I doubt it.

There is also the polarization of our language on issues such as abortion and sex education. How on earth can we say what we really need to say on these issues without first ensuring that we have made it so very clear that we don't think this, and don't advocate that? It is too defensive, too contextualized for the outside world.

Women Deliver demanded that we reach out to new audiences. Let's not do it with language based on programs of action, vital as these documents remain. Let's do it with real words (and also images) that have life and resonance beyond our own particular offices and corridors and conferences.

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