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Discrimination, marginalisation of women still prevalent

LILIAN KIEFER
IN HER TEDtalk titled ‘We Should all be Feminists’, Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie shares her experiences on how most of the times when she goes out to dinner in male company, the waiters only recognised and greeted the man.
The waiters assumed they were a couple and the man speaks for both of them. Therefore, if the man says he is fine, she is also fine.
Adichie shares how such experiences make her feel so invisible, unvalued and non-existent.
While this may seem as an insignificant restaurant experience, the implications are deeper.
Such treatment by society puts women in the shadows of men regardless of their abilities and capabilities, making women feel so invisible, unvalued and non-existent.
This affects women’s self-confidence and courage in all spheres of life, and works against efforts to empower them.
Closer to home, here is another true story – my personal experience.
A few days ago, I went to attend a high-profile human rights event at a public academic institution in Lusaka.
On arrival, just outside the venue, I met a male colleague coming to the same event. Together we made our way to the entrance.
To my surprise, when we reached the entrance all the ushers focused their attention on my male colleague.
They welcomed him, showed him where he should go, where he should register and even asking after his well-being.
No-one acknowledged me or my presence, no-one greeted me; neither did they offer me registration to the event.
I asked myself why this was the case.
It then dawned on me that everyone assumed that I was attached to this man and therefore if he is acknowledged, and he is fine, then I am covered (and fine, too!).
In their view, I was just but an accessory to this man. Really?
Many questions raced through my mind. I felt a deep sense of invisibility, insignificance and marginalisation.
I even wondered why I was there anyway.
I told myself that I am not invisible, that I am a significant contributor and I was at the event to participate equally.
So I asked the ushers why I was not being acknowledged and shown where to go, like others. Only then did apologies flow.
Suddenly, I received some dignified welcoming hospitality and was ushered in and greeted warmly.
I had to fight for it because I never give up. Some women get disenfranchised and understandably give it up, and marginalisation continues.
The experience of being treated like invisible beings that Adichie, I and so many other women have endured is no different from the discrimination and disregard endured by other groups that have been pushed to the margins of society for one reason or another.
Being made to feel invisible is a very painful experience.  It is disrespectful, unfair and rude to ignore someone.
The worst part is that in situations that matter, such kind of treatment tends to disempower women, making them feel unimportant and non-existent.
Such treatment affects how women will respond and participate in development activities and/or debates, and causes them to shy away from politics and other leadership roles.
Sadly, this type of thinking is ingrained in our society, and tries to convince women that they are only accessories there to add to the ambiance without being useful.
What is most disturbing is that these kinds of behaviour and attitudes are so widespread and entrenched in both men and women that it almost feels normal.
Unfortunately, even people who have dedicated their lives to advocating for human rights have accepted this situation as normal.
Understanding and appreciating the consequences of such actions is a crucial step in unlocking our minds to start realising and believing that women deserve the same kind of respect and recognition as men.
It is essential to realise that such seemingly small acts cut deeply and disempower women.
That is why in its programming, Panos Institute Southern Africa (PSAf) seeks to amplify voices of different marginalised groups to demand what is right and shape their own development.
We all need to be aware of our own discriminatory tendencies and aim to address them for the betterment of our society.
The author is the executive director of PSAf. for feedback, email lilian@panos.org.zm.

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