Without fighting corruption, we cannot tackle poverty. Because of this, Mary Chirwa is putting her life on the line to fight financial crimes in Zambia every single day.
Integrity as the key for sustainable development
For the last 22 years, Mary Chirwa has been fighting for a more just and fairer financial system in Zambia. Due to commitment and determination, she rose from being a police constable doing guard duties to being the head of the Financial Intelligence Centre. As the Director General, Mary finds and closes down illegal money trails on a daily basis. Mary: “It’s our mission to ensure that government funds are not abused by anyone for personal gain and that our procurement systems are protected from corruption and manipulation.”
Tackling corruption to fight poverty
According to Mary, corruption and poverty are interconnected issues. “The only way we can alleviate poverty, is by fighting corruption, money laundering and other financial crimes”, she explains. “When funds that are meant for education, healthcare and other developmental projects end up in the pockets of few, building a resilient, just and equal country simply becomes impossible.”
Although the Financial Intelligence Centre is a governmentally founded and funded organisation, Mary and her colleagues face threats from different corners on a daily basis. “When you’re trying to stop people from abusing public funds, you become an obstacle. And when you’re an obstacle, you must be dealt with. Unregistered vehicles have come to my house, I’ve received direct threats to my life and I’m being followed regularly. All this creates a fear for me and the people around me.”
Used to intimidation
Despite its devastating effects on her and her loved ones, intimidation cannot stop Mary from fighting for what she believes in. “I’ve been combating financial crime for all my professional life, so threats are no stranger to me”, she says. “I see it as my assignment to fight poverty by fighting corruption, no matter what the circumstances. If I don’t do it, who will?”
Mary’s determination is rooted in her childhood. After losing both her parents, by the age of only 17, Mary was faced with the responsibility of taking care of her younger brother and sisters. “It was not easy to be young and having your siblings counting on you”, Mary says. “After living with family for a while, we we’re on our own. We lived in poverty. For the young ones to have a taste of meat, I had to go to the butcher and buy the bones people normally use to cook dog food. Because of this experience, I feel privileged to be in the position in which I am today and I will do anything in my power to make a difference.”
Mary Chirwa Award
For her outstanding work, the Dutch organisation Nudge recently awarded Mary the very first Mary Chirwa Award: an award in her name that will be handed to courageous leaders from around the world. Together with the honour and recognition came a 5.000-dollar cheque, that Mary will invest in future Zambian leaders. “Corruption is a moral issue. People are stealing from innocent citizens for their own gain. In order to change this, we need to teach today’s children what it means to do the right thing. And what it takes to have integrity, to fight for the betterment of your country, especially when you’re in a position of power. By doing this, we can create a completely different society that will be thinking about others instead of themselves.”
Over the next few years, Mary hopes to be able to continue to build strong institutions, both together with the Zambian government and the international community. “If I’m still alive in the next five years, I want to make sure that Zambia puts proper systems in place to safeguard its financial systems. Once we figure out as a country where our gaps are, then we can work together with international organisations like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to safeguard our resources.”
Although corruption in faraway countries might seem like an issue that doesn’t affect you, according to Mary it should be a concern to all of us. “From drug related operations to international terrorism: the funds for the things that shake us are almost never funded in our own jurisdiction. If one country is vulnerable to corruption, the entire world is vulnerable to its consequences”, she explains. “Therefore, I’d like to ask everybody to get involved. Let’s take a stand for integrity, for doing the right thing. As long as our mind-sets are in the right place, solving poverty and creating sustainable development will become an easy thing to do.”
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