Unsung heroes need resources to fight gender violence

Unsung heroes need resources to fight gender violence

Date: November 30, 2009
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As we commemorate 16 Days of Activism, along with highlighting how extensive the problem still is, we also need to pause a moment to thank the people who work tirelessly 365 days a year to help and support survivors. Iriss Phiri, whose home in Lusaka’s Chilulu residential area is a haven for women fleeing violence, is one such person.

Phiri and her family very often find themselves sharing their home, food, and money to assist women in the area. For Phiri, helping women and girls has been a longtime commitment.

“Helping women, especially those who are victims of violence, started years back when I was employed as a matron at the Lusaka’s Evelyn Hone College,” she recalls. “As a matron for a co-education college, I used to handle a lot of cases of female students beaten by their boyfriends. They would rush to my house for help, since as I was the nearest parent figure they could seek refuge from.”

Phiri, who worked for the college from 1985-2007, says that this experience inspired her to take action. “One thing I thought was causing a lot of conflicts in relations was lack of counselling among women and men and in 1997, while I was still working for the college, I started my own organisation known as the Alangizi National Association of Zambia.”

According to Phiri, the problem of gender violence is rising. She recalls women coming to her after their husbands decide to take another wife or girlfriend, and even bring these women into the matrimonial bed. When a woman complains, the husband would beat and chase the woman from her home.

She found that most of such cases were from high density areas, which was one of the reasons she chose to build a house in a highly populated residential area – so she could be in constant touch with such women and children.

“Sometimes, I would be enjoying the evening with my family when we just hear a loud knock on the gate of our house. We would rush there only to find a truck full offloading in my yard,” recounts Phiri. “Before I even ask what is happening and where the things are going, I see a miserable woman and her children who have been chased and sometimes beaten by the husband and they have no where to go.”

However, despite her passion and commitment, helping others takes a personal toll on Phiri, who receives little support for the work she does. “It is not always easy to provide food and other necessities, but since I have nowhere to send them, especially in the night, they have to live with us,” she says.

Most of the women who leave the home with nothing. Phiri recalls a case of one women, whose husband took her best friend as a second wife. When the women complained, the man stopped providing for her and her children. The woman was left with little hope until Phiri counseled her about how to get help.

According to Phiri, she refers most of the cases to organisations such as Women in Law in Southern Africa, Women in Law and Development, the police, or the YWCA. However, sometimes the YWCA shelters are full. This leaves her with no option but keep some victims in her house. Phiri credits such organisations with helping to guide her in her activities.

Phiri says most women who seek assistance from her are homemakers who are poor and uneducated. “At least every week I receive reports where women are beaten, divorced and they have to beg for food and money from their own husbands even to take their children to school. Because of poverty, they can not leave their abusive husbands.”

Phiri tries to empower women through skills such as making beads, but the resources available are too limited to cater for all those in need. Her limited resources also take an emotional toll on her.

“I feel very bad to see children who even stop school because their parents have broken up and their mothers have no money to take them to school. Because of the same, I ended up opening a community school (from nursery to grade 7) but the resources are not enough to cater for teachers’ salaries and other needs”.

According to Phiri, despite several and numerous efforts that are being put in place to fight gender violence, she feels the scourge is still rife in places like Chilulu because efforts often do not reach isolated communities. She has hope though, saying that it is not too late to win the fight against violence, “because today the fight is a step further than it was yesterday.”

People like Iriss Phiri show that indeed, one person can make a difference. And they can make an even bigger difference, if they get the resources and support they need.

Perpetual Sichikwenkwe writes from Zambia. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service series for the 16 Days of Activism.

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