Limited community interpretation affects women’s participation in the refugee settlements

The women’s rights movement and activists have advocated for inclusion of women and girls in development projects for decades. Guided by the principle of “Nothing for us Without us”, women’s participation and empowerment continue to be a major agenda in development-related forums, particularly those related to promoting women’s rights and empowerment. The recently concluded commemoration of International Women’s Day reaffirmed the need to re-awaken women’s participation and empowerment, most importantly for rural and ‘grass roots’ women and girls.

While we continue to strive towards gender equality and see through several gender-related initiatives by national and international actors, we need one more time to re-table and expound on the concept “Participation” and “Empowerment”. As a refugee community interpreter, working with a reknowned refugee-serving civil society organisation, I often watch with dismay as women are brought into social spaces just to ‘tick the boxes’ of service providers.

It is common to see women who are invited at short notice, arrive from quite long distances, sit in trainings and workshops, join the long queue for break teas and lunches, and later sign for modest transport refunds (if they are lucky). To many, including donors, the training/workshop was successfully done, as deduced from attendance lists, pictures, payment forms, and activity reports written.

However, I argue herein that quality control remains a major challenge for many organisations that are operating as if there is pressure to spend resources including financial resources. Many times, the specific needs of the supposedly invited women are not sought, let alone their medical and dietary needs. Furthermore, many of the women invited do not speak and write English as the official language for Uganda, but most such events are led and facilitated in English.


As a trained community interpreter, I have time and again been co-opted to trainings and workshops organised for community leaders - for which women are part of. However, many such calls, which I refer to as “call to participate”, come upon realisation that there is need for a community interpreter, and following confrontation with uncomfortable request and reality when the women can barely register their names or respond to greetings in English. Clearly, this not only reflects ‘hurried’ decisions, it also demonstrates the need to involve community interpreters in planning and preparation processes for all community events, as well as other organised events such as trainings and workshops.

Studies have shown that 65 percent of refugee women and girls are illiterate, and therefore unable either to read and write English, or to comprehend discussions in the same language. Therefore, while participation is ensured and enforced, women risk only being present but with limited abilities to express themselves. This is aggravated by their inability to demand for interpretation support.  

The frequent absence of community interpreters demonstrates the need for empowering refugees to speak for themselves, and this can be achieved through Functional Adult Literacy (FAL), Catch-up education programmes such as Accelerated Learning Programmes (ALP), and English For Adult (EFA) programmes. Secondly, it also demonstrates the need for training and empowering more community interpreters to serve fellow refugees and host community members. Thirdly, it also demonstrates the way in which refugee women and girls are overlooked in the planning and organisation of events.

Whilst some refugee-serving actors can and do employ interpreters including refugee community interpreters, the numbers trained and available are far below the actual need. Again, whilst some refugees come along with their ‘trusted’ friends and relatives especially when seeking support, such interpretation support can only go so far; first, the majority are not professionally trained to provide interpretation support. Secondly, issues surrounding confidentiality are jeopardized and/or compromised. Such support is often not entertained in organised events such as trainings and places of worship.

Whereas the above leads to several uncomfortable situations, and whilst the inability to effectively express oneself in a foreign language evidently affects self-efficacy and esteem, some of these women have not resigned to the ‘poor planning’ and lack of involvement of community interpreters in events organised for refugee women and girls.

Interpreters require time to prepare themselves and require materials to provide proper support to beneficiaries. However, interpreters are most times called to come and just interpret – without any background work and understanding of the issues being presented. Most if not all trainings draw on different expertise from different professional background including but not limited to social work, engineering, legal, and agriculture among others. Therefore, ensuring professional interpretation requires that the assigned interpreter be informed in advance, and given some documents to research further and comprehend.

As we continue to support more women to pursue and complete adult literacy programmes, we need to remind ourselves that professional community interpreters will continuously be demanded by refugees and refugee-serving organisations in and outside refugee settlements. Interpreters are here to serve, and their contributions are vital and will be required again and again. Co-opting them as mere support persons who can be called upon as and when they are needed is unprofessional and limits the extent to which they can support in addressing the needs of refugees who most need them.  

Community interpreters need to be constructively involved right from planning, implementation, and review of activities be it trainings, community dialogues, community information sessions and policing, research projects, and empowerment projects.

Thank you.

Basena Layet, the writer, is a trained Community Interpreter working with Refugee Law Project, Kiryandongo Field Office.


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