13 Apr 2011

Internationally awarded children's rights advocate empowers and protects African girls from rape and forced marriage



The Zimbabwean - April 12, 2011

Makoni challenges helplessness of girls in Africa


by Mxolisi Ncube




Our Betty among 150 women who shake the world.


JOHANNESBURG - Raped at the age of six and orphaned three years later, but still managed to pick herself up and battle on through a rough world – where every aspect of survival was scrambled for, to become an international icon. That is the story of Betty Makoni (Pictured).
Makoni fought her way from her traumatic start to life to become a multi-award winner and saviour of underprivileged girls, both in her home country, Zimbabwe and internationally. She is the Founder and Director of Girl Child Network (GCN) Zimbabwe and Chief Executive Officer of GCN Worldwide.

300,000 girls

The organisation champions the rights of the girl child globally and since it was established in 1999, Makoni Betty has mobilised over 300 000 girls – most of them victims of rape and forced traditional and religious marriages, to be empowered. 

The GCN Empowerment Model she came up with has since been replicated in many parts of the world, while Makoni has also mobilised financial resources to build four Girls Empowerment Villages, a unique model that provides safe shelter and healing for sexually abused girls. Already, more than 45 000 sexually abused girls have been empowered and rehabilitated through family, school and in the community.

The UK-based Makoni is also a consistent voice in reminding policy makers and leaders to change attitudes, religion, tradition and laws detrimental to the growth and development of the girl child. “I have a mission and vision to carry forward. I feel it within me that I can bring a change in girls’ lives and I did most of my work without money but with a big heart,” she said this week.

A new breed

“When I started building Girls Empowerment Villages without a home to call my own, I knew every girl saved in this shelter would be a great investment to the country and many have done very well. I never knew that a rural girl with no pen and paper would sit next to a laptop in a big company and say ‘hello Betty’. I am enjoying the results of my work as girls I supported are doing amazing work. We have a new breed of women. I just wanted to make a statement before I died that what happened to my grandmother, mother and me should stop.

“GCN Worldwide, based in Essex, UK is also thriving, thanks to generous CNN viewers who made donations. I have seen the whole world doing all they can to support my vision to put a Girls Empowerment and Education Fund for girls. I have faith in young girls. I know what they go through daily and I want them to have income - ranging from a dollar to $500 to help themselves. I know there is potential and it is this potential that I will follow. 

“There are many girls who are being linked to Universities in USA from rural Africa to study and I thank New Seasons Youth program (US Christian organisation that helps African and Caribbean youth build and sustain a better life through education) for our partnership, which has seen many girls getting scholarships.”
In the most extreme of African communities, a woman still occupies a role just above that of a pet, but Makoni rose to challenge that alongside her 10 High School students in Chitungwiza. 

“GCN was born out of the helplessness and hopelessness of the girl child, with the view to assisting girls in their quest for emancipation and was formerly established in March 1999 as a response to the harsh realities of the life of girls I had observed in all spheres of life,” she said. It had a specific mandate to be a voice for the voiceless and to provide a safe haven and forum where girls could meet to discuss their challenges, offer each other support and devise solutions to their problems.

Speak out


Makoni with some of the girls after completion of their training. Besides advocating on girls’ and women’s behalf, the organisation also empowered them to speak out when their rights were being threatened. 


GCN now enjoys worldwide acclaim, with awards and prizes to both the organisation and its founder on the promotion of children’s rights as well as innovative and best preventative strategies in child abuse.
Notable amongst these are the Global Friends Award and Children’s Jury Prize awarded by the World’s Children Prize for the Rights of the Child 2007, fellowship selection for the Internationally acclaimed Ashoka Fellowship, the 2006 UN Red Ribbon Award for addressing gender inequalities that fuel the HIV/AIDS pandemic, Inspired the Women World Summit Innovative and Preventative Strategies Against Child Abuse Prize, awarded annually on World Day for Prevention of Child Abuse. 

Among more than 10 international awards she has received individually, Makoni was in 2003 awarded the Prize for Women’s Creativity in Rural Life by the Women’s World Summit Foundation in Switzerland, Nominated and Registered as a Human Rights Defender by the Frontline Human Rights Defenders in 2003, given a Certificate of Recognition of Remarkable Individuals from Around the World by Global Philanthropy Forum on Borderless Giving. In the 2009, she was voted CNN hero of the year for Protecting the Powerless. International magazine Newsweek has also named Makoni among the 150 women who shake the world.

Persecuted 

But she walked a rough road - and instead of enabling her to heal a fractured nation, President Robert Mugabe’s administration persecuted her at every turn. “I was arrested in Zimbabwe four times because someone had labelled me a member of the opposition (MDC),” she said.

“In 2006 I was embarrassed when some law-enforcement agents stormed my bedroom and started searching, picking even on my own underwear. All my computers and everything in my office were taken by the police and I only got them back after a week. “Prior to this, I used to get help from the police to rescue girls that had been raped, but (ZRP) Commissioner Augustine Chihuri sent a directive ordering all police stations to stop rescue missions, or face immediate dismissal.”

She also ruffled some religious feathers during the course of her work. “It was so hard for me to watch members of the Johane Marange church marry 11-year-old girls because police told me they were directed not to intervene. But even without me, why would they not save the young girls? 

“I concluded that girls were in bedrooms and not in classrooms and got very worried that Chihuri would let older men from the church to marry girls. I considered this a fully fledged war on girls’ bodies.

“Obadiah Msindo (a religious leader aligned to Mugabe) raped a girl and his case had overwhelming evidence and police detectives did a splendid job and even kept torn underwear as proof and brought this to court, but he was still set free and her victim and I are both in exile. Obadiah Msindo almost killed me as I recall one day he brought a truckload full of thugs and we were terrorised just near the courts.”

In August 2008, I rallied the international community to help women who had been raped by the (Zanu PF-aligned) youth militia in Zimbabwe and Stephen Lewis, a former UNAIDS Envoy and CEO of Aids Free world, came to our help and women deposited their evidence as I supported them personally with a shelter in Botswana.

Unsafe for girls

“It was very painful to listen to stories of mothers being forced to have sex with their sons or older women whose grandsons were opposition having sticks inserted into their private parts. “During the women’s testimonies, I felt Zimbabwe was very unsafe for women and girls and I felt so sorry for the perpetrators and why they would go at this extent. Yes I want to be a girls’ hero but not a dead one at all, that is why I eventually decided to leave Zimbabwe.”

Makoni has also braved bad publicity, which she blames largely on some petty jealousies and the state-run media in Zimbabwe. “Many times the government Herald wrote horrible things about me. They lied about my staff and many other things in the organisation.”

Having taken so many punches in her work, what keeps her going? “I am a woman who believes in working hard,” she said and apportioned the success. “I also have a loving husband and my three sons (including one under foster care) and we are am so happy together. That would give any woman inspiration because in a family where I am loved and cared for, I never feel at any time I should give up.” 

Her advice to the victimised is, “Never stay a victim and do not fear to break silence on abuse.” Makoni’s work is inspirational, to say the least, but will she leave no records when she eventually departs from this earth?“No. A book about my life is coming out soon and it will tell women and girls, boys and men that in life the poor and abused must fight to be better and they must not die victims. My editor Jo Anne Pritchard has done a fantastic job on putting together my life story with hope that every woman and girl heals and that they pick up their pieces and move forward.”


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1 comment:

  1. One Girl’s Courage

    By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF NYT October 12, 2011

    Early one morning, I came across the actress Eva Mendes, crying. She said that she was overwhelmed by all the girls she had met here in Sierra Leone who had been raped — and by her inability to help. Ms. Mendes and I had just arrived here in West Africa to collaborate on a PBS documentary on some inspiring women around the world. In our first full day of reporting, we had met 3- and 4-year-old girls who had been raped.

    It was heartbreaking, yet we ultimately found a hint of progress, partly because of the grit of a 15-year-girl, Fulamatu. A ninth grader and star of her class, Fulamatu dreams of going to university and becoming a bank manager. Living right next door is Victor S. Palmer, a 41-year-old Pentecostal pastor and friend of her family, so close that Fulamatu calls him “uncle.” Yet, one day in May, Fulamatu says, the pastor threw her on his bed and raped her.

    “I was scared, so I didn’t tell my parents,” Fulamatu remembered. He continued the attacks, she said, and she became sick and lost weight. Finally, after two other girls reported that the pastor had tried to rape them, her parents confronted her. Fulamatu told them that she had been repeatedly raped, and a doctor determined that she had a severe case of gonorrhea.

    Fulamatu wanted to prosecute the pastor, and I watched as she made her statement to the police. She was scared and embarrassed but also determined. The police set out to arrest the pastor, but they couldn’t find him. That’s when Fulamatu had an idea: If I, as a foreigner, called his cellphone, he might agree to meet. After concluding that it would be a mistake to let an alleged rapist go free if I could prevent it, I telephoned the pastor. I introduced myself and asked to see him that afternoon. When he showed up, the police grabbed him.

    The pastor firmly denied all charges. At the police station, he told me that he had never had sex, forced or consensual, with Fulamatu or tried to rape the other girls. He could not explain why the girls would say that he had attacked them. That evening, the neighborhood celebrated outside the police station. One girl after another came up to me and described how the pastor had been preying on girls. Fulamatu was thrilled at the prospect of justice. Impunity seemed to be eroding.

    Yet progress is agonizingly slow, and the International Rescue Committee says that only one-half of 1 percent of the rapes it deals with in Sierra Leone lead to convictions. I soon saw the challenges first hand. After Mr. Palmer was arrested, his family members came calling on Fulamatu’s family. They prostrated themselves before Fulamatu’s feet and begged forgiveness.

    Under pressure, Fulamatu’s father announced that he forgave the pastor. Fulamatu’s mother told me that the family would not testify against Mr. Palmer at a trial. The police moved on their own and released the pastor. He is now free again.

    “This is very common,” Amie Kandeh of the International Rescue Committee, who battles sexual violence here, told me. She routinely sees cases dropped. Then it got worse. Fulamatu’s father, humiliated by the furor surrounding his daughter, threatened to evict her from their house. Her mother prepared to send Fulamatu to a remote village with no school. It looked as if Fulamatu would be forced to end her studies and have her life’s hopes destroyed.

    I left Fulamatu my cellphone so that she could contact me for help if necessary. That evening she phoned: Her father had kicked her out on the street. Then her parents confiscated the phone.

    read the rest at:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/13/opinion/one-girls-courage.html

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