“This lady lived with her husband who was sick, her two sons, a daughter-in-law … and a girl.”
Alarm bells started ringing as I read this sentence in the case study, and I felt my emotions begin to rise. Who was this ‘girl’? Why were the sons and the daughter-in-law described with relational words and the ‘the girl’ simply tacked on the end with only her gender noted? Was she a daughter? Was she a ‘slave’, a bonded house help?
I was checking the English of case studies which the Community Health team were sending to their funders, as I am sometimes asked to do, in order to help improve the staff members’ English. This case study involved microfinance to provide the older lady in the house with an income to prevent the family going into debt. However, in this instance I wasn’t concerned about the lady—I was concerned for ‘the girl’. When I checked out the case study, I found it had first been written in Hindi by one of the Community Health staff and then translated into English by another member of staff who had some English.
This day I wanted to do more than just improve their English; I wanted to point out how this choice of language was signifying the lack of value of a girl. I called for the original Hindi writing and, sure enough, the Hindi words had been exactly translated into English. It was so ingrained in culture that neither the author nor the translator of the story had picked up its significance. This really disturbed me because, while the team were trying to improve the situation of one female, they had completely missed the issue of the other.
Then I called for the person who had written the Hindi version, to ascertain who this girl was. She was indeed the daughter of the family. Something almost boiled inside me. Why was the ‘daughter-in-law’ described relationally but the family’s own daughter was simply ‘a girl’.
Language is powerful, and here the use of a small word captures the situation of so many ‘girls’ in rural South Asia. They are not counted as part of the family because, as soon as possible, the family will give her in marriage to another family. In a sense she is a bonded house-help, who will cause her family more debt as they send her to another family.
The lady who had attempted the translation caught my train of thought and we had a very interesting discussion on the value of girls. My prayer is that she will continue to stand up for many more ‘girls’ who need to know they can be daughters of the Great Father and the King of Kings.
Most of us slip into the mould of our own culture so easily. People who come from outside our culture help us recognise things about our culture we haven’t seen before. Paul and Peter both speak about the need to shape our lives by the Kingdom of God (Rom 12: 2–3; 1 Pet 1:13–17). We need to take the principles of God’s Kingdom and hold them up as the measuring stick to the way we currently live.
It may be tempting to think our culture is better than someone else’s but, in the end, all cultures are held accountable to God’s Kingdom principles. When we step outside our comfort zone and interact with another culture, we often have the opportunity to see things in that culture that need to be redeemed. But beware: you may also be challenged to critically examine your own!
Amelia has served in South Asia for more than 15 years. She currently works in building research capacity for a variety of healthcare workers.
Names have been changed.