By Tisa Banda - Communications and Donor Liaison Officer, World Vision
There are careers for all, and those believed to be for males only –or rather, male-dominated. But there are some women who have shattered glass ceilings to not only pursue those male-dominated careers but also succeed at them.
One such woman is Sylvia Phiri, World Vision's Security Manager for Zambia, whose duties include managing and directing the overall performance of the security team, as well as serving as a point of contact with benefit vendors ensuring that the organisation meets all security requirements, among others.
Sylvia is also a mother of three boys.
Growing up, she had no idea that she would one day end up working in security systems services industry. The 38-year-old has been working in intelligence and security for nearly 12 years. Born third in a family of six on 8 December 1983 in the mining town of Luanshya (Copperbelt Province), she went to Ndola Trust School from reception to Grade 7.
Sylvia then proceeded to Fatima Girls’ Secondary School in Ndola, a Catholic-run school, for her secondary education; which she completed in 2001 and then went to the University of Zambia (UNZA) to study Public Administration as her major and Development Studies as her minor.
She had a dream of working in a bank, which she did after graduation, albeit briefly.
Sylvia explains how she found herself in the security field.
“You know the job market in Zambia is quite tough. So, after completing university, I started job-hunting,” She says. In 2008, Sylvia saw an advert in the newspaper for Konkola Copper Mines (KCM) looking for management trainees in the security department and applied for the job despite not meeting the physical requirements of the role.
“It was just for the sake of a job then. I didn’t even fully understand what I was getting into”, she says “Apart from the academic qualifications, they also wanted other qualifications. There was a minimum height requirement of 1.7 metres and I had to be well built. You’ve seen me, am not even close to 1.7 metres and am quite small! But I still applied and attended the interviews. I always say what’s yours is yours.”
Sylvia was employed as a management trainee in security at KCM and in the same year, the mining company sent her to study for a diploma at Orion School of Security and Intelligence Management (OSSIM) in India. “After I joined KCM and they took me to the training, I was able to understand the role and I found it was a very interesting and challenging field because I love a challenge and I don’t think I would have it any other way", she says.
In 2009, Sylvia was confirmed and became Security Superintendent for Intelligence and Investigations but left in 2010. She then joined First Quantum Minerals (FQM)'s Head Office in Ndola as Security Officer for Operations, and was there until 2015. Sylvia then decided to do something on her own and started a business. But the security world was not done with her. It came calling again in 2017 when she joined Lafarge Holcim (now Chilanga) Cement Company.
She later hit pause on her career to focus on her studies, enrolling for a Master’s degree in Peace and Security Studies at the University of Lusaka (UNILUS). Sylvia then joined World Vision's Zambia Office in January 2021 as Security Manager.
Sylvia says a lot of people think that security is just about providing protection like a security guards but, “it goes beyond that with other components such as management and intelligence equally as vital.” Challenges that Sylvia has faced in this career include having to work twice as hard and prove herself more than her male counterparts.
“When you are firm, the impression is that she’s rude. When you’re lenient, she’s weak. We always have to prove ourselves to be put at the same level with men. You get accused of doing things you have not done for you to be where you are. People do not accept that I just work hard as a woman”, she says.
Sylvia says that working at World Vision is interesting because it’s the first time she’s working in a humanitarian organisation whose focus is risk management. “My current role has broadened my scope, though challenging, as it’s the first time the security department is on its own unit.” She is quick to add that she has received a lot of help within World Vision, from her Zambia Office to the organisation's Southern Africa Regional Office and the Global Centre, and that she is learning every day.
She points out her one of proudest moments as effectively putting up a contingency plan for World Vision's Zambia Office during the 2021 general elections, outlining how the organisation would manage in case it was faced with operational challenges, as elections sometimes come with uncertainties and difficulties. Sylvia helped in identifying security gaps and put measures in place that would allow for business continuity.
“The 2021 elections brought about a lot of anxiety for people in Zambia including staff. Safety of staff was priority as well as business continuity. I can proudly say that I was part of the team that put together the business continuity plan as well as outlined measures of how staff and their families could be kept safe.”
Also, on that list is being a Fellow with the Mandela Washington Fellowship (MWF), the flagship program of the U.S. Government’s Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) and being promoted from trainee to Security Superintendent within a period of one year at KCM.
Sylvia says International Women’s Day is important for women to celebrate their contributions to the growth of the economy, adding that the theme for this year is important, as addressing gender equality creates a conducive environment in which development can not only thrive but also be maintained.
“Being a mother of all boys, I intend to commemorate Women’s Day by teaching my boys to respect women and remove the belief about gender roles that society has instilled in us”, she says.
Sylvia advises young girls who want to follow her footsteps and join the security field to remain focused despite the challenges and discouragements that they might face along the way.
International Women’s Day this year is being held under the theme "Breaking the Bias", and a UN focus on “Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow”.