Recently, I watched a video message by Namibian First Lady Monica Geingos on the theme of the 2021 International Women’s Day: #ChoosetoChallenge. In her message, she spoke of the misogyny and online abuse faced by her simply because she is a powerful woman living and speaking her truth. She also spoke of her decision to push back against her abusers because, “Your silence won’t protect you”.

International Women’s Day has come and gone but Monica's message has left a lasting impression on me. It reminded me of all the little ways that women shrink and are silenced by society. I remember watching Hillary Clinton face former US President Donald Trump in a 2016 presidential debate.

He used his physical presence to dominate the space and interrupted her several times, tactics that have been used to bully women for centuries.

I have said on many an occasion that women are far more sensitive to being ridiculed and insulted than men. The apparent need to protect the dignity of women has enslaved women for millennia. Oprah Winfrey once narrated how after twenty-five years of doing the Oprah Winfrey show, something she felt she could do in her sleep, she felt ready for a new challenge. She subsequently created the Oprah Winfrey Network, or OWN, to produce the kind of television that she wanted to watch. Unfortunately, OWN was not an overnight success. Initially it received very poor ratings and the media began to say that Oprah had lost her magic. That was devastating having come off the back of twenty-five years of continual success. She said in an interview with Brene Brown that when she saw a headline in a newspaper that read something like, ‘Oprah Doesn’t OWN Herself Anymore’, it shamed her. Right there and then she decided to challenge that narrative and turn her network around. She chose to challenge.

Our society teaches women to stay in the background, not to advocate for themselves, and certainly not to promote themselves. I have taken the decision to put myself out in the public arena, even though I am a very private person. I do so not to gain likes or followers but because I believe that I have something important to say; all women do. Often, women will send me a link to an article that talks about an award or achievement they have made with the intention of me posting it on their behalf. They do so because they do not want to be seen to be promoting themselves; something women are particularly judged very harshly for. I choose to celebrate my own achievements because I have earned all of them through blood, sweat, and tears - literally.

I have learnt over time that, in order to truly reach my full potential, I must own my successes and my failures. Being ridiculed and humiliated is not fun at all. It takes a lot of willpower and effort to put yourself back out there after a failure. But I believe that no one can keep you down without your permission. What I do know for sure is that representation matters. If women continue to cower and shrink even at the thought of failure or ridicule, then we will continue to see only a few women in positions of influence.

Often, we see the same faces represented over and over again because other women are afraid to step up. This has to change. We must choose to challenge this narrative. We cannot return to business as usual in between each International Women’s Day. We must stand up to all bullies, including those internal voices that hold us back.
I choose to challenge, will you?

Linda Kasonde is a 2014 Tutu Fellow and a Zambian lawyer and human rights activist.  The logo is from the IWD website

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The African Leadership Institute (AFLI) focuses on building the capacity and capability of visionary and strategic leadership across the continent. Developing exceptional leaders representing all spheres of society, the Institute’s flagship programme is the prestigious Archbishop Tutu Leadership Fellowship. Offering a multifaceted learning experience and run in partnership with Oxford University, it is awarded annually to 20-25 carefully chosen candidates, nominated from across Africa. Alumni of the African Leadership Institute form a dynamic network of Fellows passionately committed to the continent’s transformation, bridging the divide between nations and ensuring that Africa is set centre-stage in global affairs.