Fighting for Girls' Rights

By Susan Macaulay

betty_makoni.jpgBetty Makoni was beaten and raped as a child. When she was nine, she saw her father kill her mother.

But she is not a victim. She is a survivor, activist and leader who turned her devastating childhood experiences into a force for good in her native country Zimbabwe.

In 1998, Makoni founded Girl Child Network (GCN) , a Zimbabwean girls’ rights organization that now has approximately 30,000 members across the country.

She received the World’s Children’s Prize for the Rights of Children in 2007, and Amnesty International’s Ginetta Sagan Award for Women’s and Children’s Rights in 2008.

Despite the international acclaim and support for her work, Makoni continues to be threatened, sometimes arrested and even imprisoned. In 2009, she fled Zimbabwe and now lives in the UK where she continues to advocate for women and girls.

Following are excerpts from her story, told in her own words and originally published under the title “Giving Zimbabwe’s Girls a Voice”, featured in the in the January/February 2007 issue of Global AIDSLink: Girls and HIV - A New Epidemic in the Women of Tomorrow?

From abuse to action

As a secondary school teacher in the densely populated Harare suburb of Chitungwiza, I was well acquainted with the abuse of young girls and frustrated by watching how each new school season fewer and fewer would return.

In 1998, I put together a girls’ club with nine upper six girls. We met regularly to share stories, ideas, and problems and find solace and solutions as a group

Today, there are 500 girls’ clubs in 49 of Zimbabwe’s 58 districts and a full-blown Girl Child Network (GCN) that serves 30,000 girls, raises community awareness and lobbies government to protect girls. Our goal is to dismantle the link between culture and violence against the girls and enable them to take charge of their own destiny

My own history played a big part in the process. I had been raped at six by a certain man who was in the habit of unabashedly raping minor girls and orphaned at nine by the death of my mother from domestic violence.

At age eight, I had stood up and pushed her to report the violence perpetrated on her by my father, but she put a finger to my mouth and said, “Shush,” meaning “Quiet, you don’t say that in public.”

So common throughout many societies in Africa, that order is just what I was determined to reject when I grew up. It was not only my mother or I who suffered, but virtually every girl and woman who saw abuse perpetrated against her swept under the carpet. It was the norm.

In March 1999, at Zengeza High School, GCN was officially launched. By then there were 10 clubs, as lady teachers from surrounding schools had picked up on the idea. But the school head at Zengeza became offended by the feminist talk of girls’ rights, so as I sensed problems developing, I resigned from teaching. With only an old typewriter missing the letter ‘e’, and a lot of girls’ stories, I took on the work of Girl Child Network full time

Eight years later, the girls’ clubs remain the heart of the program and a big heart it is. They create a space for girls all over the country to meet with trained volunteers to break the silence in a safe and supportive environment. The clubs’ flexible structure has five elements:
  • identifying needs
  • mobilizing and developing strategies to go public on incidents of rape
  • leadership development of the girls
  • developing and empowering the community
As a consequence of empowerment through the girls’ clubs, more and more girls, averaging eight per day, are reporting incidences of rape

Global support

GCN is one organization proving the large impact of small grants; grants ranging from $5,000 to $30,000 from Oxfam/Novib, the Global Fund and American Jewish World Service and Newfield Foundation, which have continued to support us

In addition, donors such as CIDA, the Stephen Lewis Foundation, the Egmont Trust, the British and U.S. Embassies, UNICEF and the EU have also boosted funding of our four administrative centres in seven provinces. GCN has also received three international awards, including the red ribbon in Toronto and raises some of its own income through girl-child music and grinding mills.

The GCN has come a long way since 1998 when it was only me and nine girls. Despite the challenges and the problems faced by the girls of Zimbabwe, their future and that of future generations of girls are beginning to look brighter

The support from communities keeps growing, but most important is the continued support from the girls whose hard and brave work have made the network expand and their own lives improve. This future will include clubs in every school and even in churches, eventually becoming their own organizations

Eventually, Zimbabwean laws will be in line with the needs of girls, and people will recognize the importance of ensuring a good life for the girl child. Communities will work to ensure girls stay in school and are safe abuse will end. Empowerment of girls will prove to be the best prevention of all for HIV

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