Alphabet Soup: Are you saying what you mean?

Gender-based violence. Those words are powerful. Say those words to someone and they mean something, even if they have never heard the term before. Female genital mutilation. These words conjure up images of brutality, of violence, of pain, of discrimination and sexism. Even sexually transmitted disease, maybe something you’re more used to hearing in its abbreviated form of STD, is more powerful when spelled out.

If you work in global health or international development and maybe even if you don’t, you probably call gender-based violence “GBV” and female genital mutilation “FGM”.  You’ve probably written PMTCT, short for prevention of mother-to-child transmission (of HIV). And heard SAM (severe acute malnutrition); SRH (sexual reproductive health); FP (family planning); MVC (most vulnerable children); NTDs (neglected tropical diseases); NCDs (non-communicable diseases); OVC (orphans and vulnerable children); QALY (quality-adjusted life-years)…and I could go on.

There’s the obvious argument that using these acronyms and abbreviations alienate people who aren’t in the aid, development, human rights or health fields and don’t know the wonky lingo and it’s elitist and pretentious, and I would agree with that. But there’s something even more disturbing.

We dilute the meaning of these words and phrases by bunching them up into comfortable little packages of letters. We start to forget what they even stand for. This shorthand stands for words that articulate inequity, paint a picture of human rights violations, elucidate real issues that need to be described with real words, not – women who have experienced FGM as a form of GBV are also likely to get STDs like HIV and end up going through PMTCT, though many times their children suffer SAM and are MVCs. WHAT DOES THAT MEAN??? It means women are being abused and having their human rights violated because of their gender. It means we’ve figured out ways for people living with HIV to not transmit it to their children. It means children are dying from malnutrition because they live in poverty. These letters represent circumstances that describe the trials of being a human being in the face of injustice. This isn’t LOL and BRB and IDK.

So, while I might vaguely understand people’s desire to shorten things up, please, take the extra few letters, take the extra breath and say the words. They mean something. And isn’t it so much more powerful to call what it is they stand for by their names?

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1 Comment

  1. You are absolutely right that this is much more than an issue of jargon. Every industry has its lingo, but in taking these shortcuts we miss the essential meaning. In the words of Zoë Smith, with a cliché you have pandered to a shared understanding, you have taken a shortcut, you have re-presented what was pleasing and familiar rather than risked what is true and strange.

    When you consider that many of these terms are transferred directly into other languages, the meaning is further diluted: for example, instead of ‘la violence basée sur le genre’ in French, you find the English acronym “SGBV” – which not only evades understanding but arguably ties into other language hierarchies at play in the development and humanitarian sectors, especially on the ground).

    I think there is also a need not only to resist these acronym reductions, but also to specify. ‘Gender-based violence’ is a wide and varied phenomenon, and any response or attempt to discover its root causes needs to be similarly open to this possibility of diversity: we need to recognise the individuality of victim, perpetrator, and witness, rather than conveniently lumping every incident together.

    Furthermore, I think your point about language can be expanded to include narrative and discourse surrounding any particular issue. It’s easy to point the finger at lazy reporting, either from organisations or journalists, but I think, as consumers of this information, we have both a right and responsibility to dig deeper than the shallow conclusions of news headlines; instead, we can widen the narrative by giving voice to people who don’t or won’t use the language or narrative we are led to expect by Western media, NGO marketing, or government reports.

    Here are a few links to pieces by people who have said all this much better:

    How to Write about Africa • Binyavanga Wanainaina (Granta)

    How to Write About Africa II: The Revenge • Binyavanga Wanainaina (Bidoun)

    The west’s lazy reporting of Africa • Afua Hirsch (The Guardian)

    How Not to Write About Africa • Lauren Seay (Foreign Policy)

    How do journalists write about Africa? • Tristan McConnell (Global Post)

    How not to write about Africa in 2012 – a beginners’ guide • Binyavanga Wainaina (The Guardian)

    The danger of a single story • Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie (TEDGlobal)

    SGBV: The Victim of Over-Sensationalism • Dominique Vidale-Plaza (Think. Write. Act.)

    Changing our approach to peace-building in DRC, committing to unravelling the roots of SGBV and the conflict • Dominique Vidale-Plaza (Amani Itakuya)

    What Happened in Luvungi? On rape and truth in Congo • Laura Heaton (Foreign Policy)

    Is there too much focus on sexual violence in the Congo? • Jason Stearns, Laura Heaton (Congo Siasa)


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