SHIKANDA KAWANGA, Lusaka
WHILE some people render help to the needy to be noticed, others do it genuinely.One true philanthropist is the newly-appointed Minister of Gender and Kanyama Member of Parliament Elizabeth Phiri, who is passionate about transforming lives of underprivileged children.
She is also a gender and human rights activist. So President Edgar Lungu was not wrong to appoint her Minister of Gender.
A holder of a bachelor’s degree in social work, Ms Phiri was helping the underprivileged in Kanyama way before she joined active politics.
Because hard work never goes unnoticed, in 2006 Unilever named her brand ambassador of their key laundry soap in Kanyama because of the community work she was doing there.
She wrote the best essay about her charity work in Kanyama which won her K25,000 from Unilever.
This is how Ms Phiri came out of obscurity in Kanyama and earned herself the name Mama Key, a moniker by which she is known among the locals.
From the resources earned from her chain of hardware and stationery shops, Ms Phiri has been supporting the underprivileged.
And with her professional knowledge, she has been championing economic and labour rights of the disadvantaged in society.
“I have been looking after orphans and vulnerable children in Kanyama. I have also been taking care of the aged and widows. I have been working with the community even before I joined politics,” she said in an interview.
Ms Phiri, 58, is the founder of an organisation called Foundation for Justice and Human Rights which campaigns for economic and labour rights of the poor, while advocating against any form of human rights abuse.
“Through the Foundation for Justice and Human Rights, we were able to retrieve children from early marriages and help widows who were victims of property grabbing,” she said.
Ms Phiri boasts that in her trail of community work, she has never failed any project.
Between 2002 and 2008, the Kanyama lawmaker served as chairperson of over 30 women clubs which she was also supporting financially.
Other portfolios she held at community level were that of chairperson of the Ward Development Committee and director of the Kanyama Water Trust.
“Being a businesswoman, I have been financing some of the small projects and sometimes helping women and youths with [business] ideas,” she said.
Ms Phiri says she will use her expertise in community work to run projects in the Ministry of Gender.
“Being a Minister of Gender is not a learning platform [for me]. This appointment is a blessing in disguise because I didn’t have a platform to execute all my ideas in terms of advocating for gender issues.
“I used to do advocacy in a small way, but now I will do it at a national level. I feel being Minister of Gender is a better platform for me to execute my duties,” she said.
Ms Phiri also says she will dedicate her work to the needs of the less privileged in society.
She is full of praises for President Lungu for the confidence he has shown in her and says she is equal to the task ahead.
Ms Phiri, who recently took over the Gender portfolio from the late Victoria Kalima, also thanked the Non-Governmental Organisations Coordinating Council (NGOCC) for taking her through the training programme for women aspiring for political office.
Among the things she will focus on during her tenure, are the fight against child marriage and narrowing the gender inequality gap between men and women.
“I will introduce the Zebra structure like in the PF where if the top one (official) is a man, then the deputy has to be a female. I will not let down the President,” the minister said.
She believes that there is need to have gender balance in all leadership structures.
“It is already there in the current Government, the President is a man and the Vice-President is a woman, which is a good example. This has to trickle down to all political parties, private and government institutions,” she said.
She urged the women’s movement to continue with their capacity building programmes for women aspiring for political office so that more of them could assume leadership roles.
Ms Phiri said this should also involve identifying women with leadership traits, pointing out that some are shy of coming into the political limelight for fear of smear campaigns.
She said although it is hard for women to make it in politics because of the obvious male dominance, women need to have confidence in their potential to succeed just like their male counterparts do.
Ms Phiri feels men should take an active role in encouraging women to join politics.
“Women should be courageous and should not lag behind. Behind every successful man, there is a successful woman. We are partners in development,” she says, beaming with confidence.
On her vision for the Ministry of Gender, she says, “I have a duty to finish the projects that my predecessor had started. I’m not in a hurry to introduce new programmes because we are one Government and have one agenda and manifesto.”
As much as Ms Phiri appreciates what her predecessors have done in fighting child marriage, she feels it has not been an easy campaign because her ministry has no physical presence in other provinces.
“I want to lobby Government to introduce gender offices in every district so that we could go into the villages to address the causes of early marriages,” she said.
Ms Phiri said her ministry will not rely on non-governmental organisations (NGOs), but will spearhead sensitisation campaigns against child marriage and early pregnancies.
She believes NGOs should only supplement Government‘s efforts.
President Lungu has tasked the new Minister of Gender to help Zambia achieve gender parity and zero tolerance for child marriages.
“Gender is about all of us. As you take up this position, you are expected to help Government to seriously address the numerous gender issues affecting men and women, boys and girls,” President Lungu told Ms Phiri when he swore her in recently.
“It is my hope that you will take keen interest in the issues of women empowerment programmes through clubs and cooperatives to bring to fruition our party’s vision of empowering the lessprivileged.”
Ms Phiri’s story is incomplete without mentioning her diplomatic appointment as Deputy High Commissioner to Tanzania in 2012. She served until 2016 when she came back to contest the Kanyama parliamentary election, which she won for the ruling PF.
She is a founding member of PF who most of the time was in the background and President Lungu actually commended her for patiently serving the party as an ordinary member.
“I have been a member of the Patriotic Front since 2001 when the party was just formed. I was one of the first people in PF when our founding leader, the late Michael Sata, formed the party,” Ms Phiri said.
In 2008, she was appointed PF deputy national chairperson, a position she held until 2011.
Ms Phiri says she has had a successful political career because of her passion for bettering the lives of others.
She was born in 1960 in Chipata as a firstborn in a family of 16 which has three sets of twins.
The mother of three started school at Chadiza Primary School, and later moved to Tilitonse Primary School. She completed form V in 1976 at Chadiza Secondary School.
SHIKANDA KAWANGA, Lusaka