Mind Your Language: Reflections of how we talk about women and girls

Mind Your Language: Reflections of how we talk about women and girls


Where I come from, when a woman gets married, it’s said that she has ‘gone to cook’.

When I was a child, just like many young girls everywhere, a fairy tale wedding and happily ever after stories always got me excited.

That was not until feminists like Chimamanda Ngozi came to spoil the default narrative of what roles defined boys and girls, men and women.

So now, I have grown up to become a journalist working in women’s rights.  I spend most of my time travelling, meeting people to interview, writing stories and producing radio programs.  It is a life that does not yet fit the ‘’ happily ever after’ model. Some of the best life skills my mother taught me like cooking, are yet to be put to the test.

In the last one year, I have worked with women politicians and journalists. Our programme is focused on increasing the media coverage for women politicians.

 Leadership for women is seen as new territory that once belonged to men. The crop of women leaders taking over this space are on the crosshairs. Their every word and action is thoroughly scrutinised and criticised more than that of their male colleagues.  

Perceived befitting roles

By now, I believe it’s not news that women and girls in many communities are assigned care work such as cleaning, cooking and child care.  Corporate work, leave alone politics is seen as too tough for women. In many cases, it’s even seen as distracting them from taking care of their homes, children and husbands.

It is a general assumption that one of a woman’s highest aspirations is to be a home maker. While this can be true, some women can also aspire to live their dream careers in any field including politics.

What our languages say about women

As a journalist, language is my primary tool for telling stories.  My sensitivity to the use of language made me question how it’s engineered to describe women’s roles and place in society.

To find out what our languages say about women, I did an experiment using my high school Facebook page.

Here’s the question I posed: What's the word or phrase in your mother tongue describing a woman's getting married.

In more than half of the 28 responses I got, a woman is said to have ‘gone to cook’ or ‘make babies’

So as you can see, many of our cultural backgrounds have defined by default one of women’s most defining roles as cooking.   Cooking is summary of all other accompanying house and care work. 

In Dholuo, one of the languages picked during the experiment, there’s a sharp contrast.  The word ‘leader’ in Luo language,  is ‘Jatelo’ the prefix ‘ja’  refers  to the  masculine, opposite of ‘nya’  which is the feminine.  The word ‘nyatelo’ in the Luo Language is the feminine of ‘jatelo’ but is hardly used and remains obscure.  This language has assigned leadership roles to a specific gender- the male in this case.  That is what remains comfortably accepted. 

Mind your language

The way we use language significantly orders our string of thoughts and this influences our decisions and finally determines our actions.

So what happens when women and men begin to step out of the language- defined cultural norms?  It becomes unacceptable because it’s upsetting the predetermined social order.

How can journalists avoid falling into the trap of reinforcing the default roles as they write their stories?

UN Women has recommended the development of a gender-sensitive language as well improving the presence of female experts and women interviewed in the media.

The radio programs we have produced in the last 4 months are targeting to achieve this UN Women recommended ideal.

 We cannot continue to push women to the home making corner. That’s a perfect excuse for excluding them from participating in politics, leadership and public life. 

We are supporting women running for MCA and Governor's positions in West Pokot, Mombasa, Trans Nzoia, Nyandarua, Kajiado, Kisumu, Narok and Nandi Counties.