Culture and Language Access | National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) Skip to main content
Get Help Escape
English Spanish

Culture and Language Access

Language is not just words- it’s also culture. Concerns of access don’t encompass linguistic understanding only, but must also include awareness of the social norms within a community that may create unique issues or barriers. When we assume that all groups of people experience and heal from harm in the same way, it not only excludes specific demographics of people but also affirms racist ideas that white, western, mainstream culture are universal. Each community has its own history and cultural realities which contribute to risk factors, barriers to seeking help, and intervention efficacy. Research suggests that these cultural particulars help explain why some communities are less likely to reach out for help or call law enforcement. 

People from marginalized communities may be reluctant to reach out for help for a variety of reasons:

  • Family and community loyalty 
  • Fear of privacy violations in tight knit groups 
  •  Fear of  being ostracized or isolated  
  • Cultural taboos around revealing abuse and “airing dirty laundry” 
  • Distrust or skepticism of law enforcement and mainstream intervention services such as victim service providers due to racial bias, lack of cultural competency, and past negative experiences are barriers for victims of color. For example, Black and African American victims may face ridicule for calling the police on the person who has abused them, essentially turning them over to a criminal justice system with a long history of oppression and abuse against their culture.    


Narratives of how sexual violence is  perpetrated have been mainly depicted by mainstream “white- middle class” examples. The Black Youth Project highlights that many prevention curriculum do not take into consideration culture.  For example, in scenarios, many victims  have ‘white’ or generic names.  This leads some People of Color to feel as though their experiences of violence are being erased due to racist ideas of what a “perfect victim” looks like. When scenarios include “historically Black” names, research has shown participants tend to blame the victim.  This illustrates that we can’t just add superficial categories to scenarios as an act of diversity, but must make sure they explore the intersections between sexual violence and race. 

Understanding a shared cultural history is an important component of understanding how to assess and employ language access tools. Words and meanings around sexual violence look and sound very different in different language and cultures. It is not possible to talk about sexual violence in the same way in every language because the concepts and terms used do not alway translate or have the same meaning in another language.     As we consider culture alongside language access, it's  equally essential to eradicate all forms of bias and cultural stereotypes that exist within the sexual violence movement and the white-supremacy based society it exists in, regarding others. For example, when seeking help from domestic violence, many Muslim women experience Islamophobia from service providers who equate the violence as a part of their faith. 

The absence of language access in sexual violence prevention and response work is a component of institutional racism. This happens when victims are not  able to access information in their native language when they seek services or move through the criminal justice system.  In one  review of culturally relevant services for victims from marginalized communities, the Georgia Domestic Violence Fatality Review Project found that victims did not always receive information in their native language about upcoming court dates and legal proceedings, and legal forms like temporary protection order forms. This put them at significant risk and further crisis.  Language interpreters were not utilized on a consistent basis or were not well trained and often children were relied on as interpreters.  The use of children as interpreters exposes them to additional trauma, and reduces the likelihood that the survivor will report all violence they experienced so as to protect the child from details.  Inadequate language access to survivors was found to lead to incomplete crime investigations and a lack of accountability for people who perpetrated abuse.  


Thought Exercise

Imagine you are driving and  have a medical emergency. Although your phone has died, you are able to navigate to the nearby emergency room and are told to fill out an intake form. You go to fill out the form and realize that all the questions are written in a language you aren’t familiar with. When you ask the triage receptionist for forms in English, she apologizes and says that they ran out of English forms because they don’t see many English speaking patients. The hospital staff tell you to download an app which will help you translate the form, but your phone is dead.  You are unable to answer any of the questions or explain the situation, but are told that you can only see a doctor after you fill out the form.

Thousands of low literacy and  non-English speaking people face this scenario and others like it  everyday in emergency rooms across the United States. As we consider this , it’s also important to remember all of the emotion, pain, and fear that you would be feeling as you navigate the lack of accessible forms in the middle of having a medical emergency. You might be wondering if you’re going to live or die, panicking about what’s going on in your body, and desperate to get help immediately. When we are in a crisis situation, a task like filling out a form or seeking help can feel cognitively impossible even when it is in your native language.


Return to the Language Access Toolkit landing page