by Constance Manika
– Zimbabwe –
“The stories we listened to made us bleed inside, the genital wounds we later had to help nurse evoked us, the long distances we traveled every day and night to educate girls on their rights made us strong, the songs of joy and sorrow the girls sang made us more passionate, everything to do with girlhood and the fact that we were there for the girls pushed us to do even more and more from the heart, soul, mind and all. The fact that we finally claimed the girls’ spaces where the girls now live and develop free of violence makes it imperative that we share these great tidings” – GCN Director and Founder Betty Makoni
I first met Zimbabwean child rights activist Betty Makoni in 2005 at a discussion forum organized by the Southern Africa Information Dissemination Service (SAfAIDS). The topic of discussion was how non-governmental organizations (NGOs) involved in children’s work could best coordinate and complement each other in the fight against child sexual abuse.
When I first heard Betty speak back then, I immediately fell in love with her. This woman spoke with so much passion and emotion about the issue of rape and abuse of young girls. She was equally disturbed by girls’ general lack of opportunities in life when compared with those given to boys.
By offering statistics and real life cases, Betty opened my eyes to the many ways that young girls in Zimbabwe are abused in the name of culture, religion or superstitious beliefs – chief among them the notion that sex with a virgin cures HIV.
Prior to attending the forum, I had absolutely no idea of the magnitude of these problems. Betty educated me. From that moment on, I was transformed; Betty inspired me to use my journalistic pen to seek justice for Zimbabwe’s girls.
Since our meeting in 2005, Betty has never disappointed me. I have come to realize that for many rural and urban young girls who live in difficult circumstances, this child rights champion is a beacon of hope.
Betty is the founder and director of Girl Child Network (GCN), an organization she formed in 1999 in response to the frightening and rampant cases of child sexual abuse in Zimbabwe, especially among young girls.
Formed to combat the “harsh realities of life” that girl children face in the home, school and community, a pamphlet on the organization’s history reads:
“GCN was born out of the hopelessness of the girl child in Zimbabwe…to assist the girl in the quest for [her] emancipation…”
Betty is not afraid to say openly that she wants to empower young girls by freeing them from abuse and affording them the same opportunities in life as boys.
Having lived a stormy and unhappy childhood as an orphan from the age of nine, Betty envisions a society where girls enjoy their economic, political and social rights and can look forward to a bright future ahead of them.
Although Betty grew up in poverty, by selling fruits and vegetables she was somehow able to raise enough to pay her school fees; she was lucky to finish primary and secondary school and proceed to university. She holds two Bachelor of Arts degrees with specialization in English, Socio-linguistics, Development, Gender, Communication, Participatory Development Methods, Management of Grassroots Organizations and Social Anthropology. Behind Betty’s philanthropy is strong determination to understand the complex systems that reinforce the very oppression that she seeks to eliminate.
Accordingly, Betty has strategically positioned the organization the country, effectively spreading GCN’s services across 35 of Zimbabwe’s 58 districts. Through GCN, Betty has built three “empowerment villages” or second homes for abused girls where they are rehabilitated and given much needed counseling.
She has also started 750 girls’ clubs at various primary and secondary schools in Zimbabwe’s most impoverished rural areas and townships where girls are taught about their rights and encouraged to speak out and report any form of abuse.
Since GCN was formed in 1999, Betty has saved more than 7,000 girls from child labor, forced marriages, abuse, human trafficking and sexual assault. Betty not only feeds, clothes and provides these girls with medical care, she also offers them the chance to go to school. And if they need shelter, she offers them a second home in the empowerment or safe houses she maintains.
A victim of rape at a very early age, Betty is a source of inspiration for many disadvantaged girls who yearn for a better life. For years, Betty kept her seething anger under wraps, but she now uses it to influence and inform her activism. She works tirelessly to fight abuse and exploitation of girl children even at the highest levels of society, undaunted by those in positions of power.
Among many other high profile cases, GCN brought to the public the case of a ZANU PF-affiliated pastor who raped his housekeeper on several occasions. GCN revealed that the pastor had threatened to have the girl and her family “disappeared” using his political connections, if she reported the attacks.
Reverend Obadiah Msindo has been nicknamed the “ZANU PF Pastor” for publicly announcing his personal support of Robert Mugabe’s corrupt government and for regularly officiating their ceremonies.
GCN also exposed the Minister of Transport and Communication, Chris Mushowe, when he allegedly sexually abused (breast fondling, verbal harassment, forced masturbation) and raped some of the girls who had benefited from The Robert Mugabe Presidential Scholarship program.
Since this scholarship is for education at the Rhodes and Fort Hare universities in South Africa, the girls were en route and staying at a local hotel at the government’s expense when they were abused.
Afterwards, it is alleged that Mushowe threatened to cancel the victims’ scholarships and send them back to “rural poverty” if they reported him. The girls exposed this abuse only after they had safely left the country through GCN, which is currently looking into the issue with the police.
Betty had no idea how high a price she was about to pay for exposing these high profile cases. Not only has she been the target of state harassment, she has endured many threats on her life.
Just one month ago Betty was arrested twice. On the first occasion the police arrested her for “sneaking” three American journalists into the country without the proper accreditation. (Under the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA), all practicing journalists in Zimbabwe must register with the government-controlled Media and Information Commission.)
Police accused Betty of smuggling them into the country so they could gather information to report negatively on the situation in Zimbabwe to their home countries. Betty argued that the journalists were making a film about GCN and thus had found it unnecessary to seek accreditation since they were not covering a major political story or event.
The police dismissed Betty’s explanation and held her for 48 hours before releasing her without charge. But the message was very clear to Betty: she had better watch out!
On the second occasion, barely two weeks after her first arrest, Betty was again arrested along with Zimbabwean talk show host Rebecca Chisamba after they broadcast interviews with child rape survivors on national television.
Betty and Rebecca were arrested on allegations that they had breached Zimbabwe’s Child Protection and Adoption Act by interviewing eight rape survivors rescued by GCN on Chisamba’s show.
Many view Betty’s arrests as politically motivated; her publicizing high profile sexual abuse cases has exposed the dark secrets that too many people in positions of power would rather see suppressed.
But all these arrests have had little effect on the public’s perception of Betty and her work. We have all learned to read between the lines of such state propaganda. The international accolades Betty receives just keep coming for this remarkable child rights activist.
In 2003, Betty was nominated and registered as a Human Rights Defender by the Frontline Human Rights Defenders; she also received the prize for Women’s Creativity in Rural Life by the Women’s World Summit Foundation, based in Switzerland. She was presented with a certificate of recognition by the Global Philanthropy Forum on Borderless Giving for being a “Remarkable Individual from Around the World,” and more recently she won the United Nations’ Red Ribbon award for addressing the gender inequities that fuel the HIV/AIDS pandemic. And this year has already proven particularly rewarding, as Betty was chosen by Junior Chamber International as one of the most Outstanding Young People in the World; and she was also awarded both the Global Friends Award and the Children’s Jury Prize from the World’s Children’s Prize for the Rights of the Child. She was also featured in the first chapter of Paola Gianturco’s new book, “Women Who Light Up the Dark” released in September.
This is Betty Makoni: the founder of what I consider to be the only truly effective movement in support of girl children in this country. This woman has taken huge personal risks in this dauntingly harsh political and economic environment to make a profound difference in the lives of millions of disadvantaged girls in Zimbabwe.
Betty is one of the unsung heroes in the Zimbabwean struggle against Robert Mugabe and his corrupt government. Though the country is saddled with poverty, violence, corruption and oppression, Betty represents the best of those Zimbabweans who provide hope in the midst of so much despair.
About the Author
Constance Manika is a journalist who works for the independent press in Zimbabwe. She writes under this pseudonym to escape prosecution from a government whose onslaught and level of intolerance to journalists in the independent press is well documented.
In Meltdown in Zimbabwe, an exclusive and ongoing series at The WIP, Constance provides continued on-the-ground reporting from her embattled country where Zimbabweans struggle daily for democracy, economic sustainability and human rights.