Betty Makoni is no ordinary woman. Raped as a child, she battled against all odds to obtain an education. As a founder of the Girl Child Network charity, she is at the forefront of identifying and tackling abuse as well as providing mentoring to at least 60,000 girls around Zimbabwe.
The Girl Child Network is responsible for putting 4,000 child sex offenders behind bars – including a popular Harare church minister, Reverend Obadiah Msindo.
Her organisation, whose model has been copied by regional countries, recently scored major success when it fronted a fund-raising appeal for Nomatter Taremedzwa Mapungwana, an 18-year-old girl given months to live because of a five-year-old aggressive facial tumour. The tumour was successfully removed at a London hospital over the weekend.
Makoni, now living in England, is among the 10 CNN Heroes of the Year for 2009 (VOTE FOR HER HERE). This is The Truth About Betty Makoni:
Born: June 22, 1971
Home District: Rusape
Marital Status: Married, with three children -- all boys
Can you give a brief background of your childhood, and education?
I had a tragic childhood. I grew up in St Mary’s in Chitungwiza. I was a child vendor at the age of six – selling tomatoes and candles at night. I lived in a family where domestic violence occurred daily. Almost all men in the neighbourhood were getting drunk and being bullies around. My way of escaping this was to buy tomatoes and walk for hours selling them.
My mother died in a tragic domestic violence incident. Her death marked my first step towards child labour. I went on to work at a mission school to raise money for my four brothers and a sister. I was looked after by Catholic nuns at St Dominic’s Secondary School.
During school holidays, I stayed behind to clean the dormitories, and in return my fees were waived. I did this all the way up to Form 6 -- six years of child labour. Because I started working at such an early age, I missed most of my childhood.
I later went to the University of Zimbabwe, when it was still possible for a poor person to obtain university education. I went there on a full government grant and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree. I majored in linguistics -- Shona and English. I later studied for a Bachelor of Arts Honours degree in Theatre Management (acting).
You had a tough childhood compared to most. You have publicly said you were raped aged six, what did you do about it?
At that time, as a child, I didn’t know what had actually happened. It involved almost 10 girls in the neighbourhood, and out of the 10 I am the only one who went up to Grade 7, the rest of them died along the way.
Our mothers staged a cover-up in fear of domestic violence, so they did all the treatments in private. I remember my mum using salt and whatever she could use to treat me. The whole abuse left physical and psychological trauma, everything stuck into my sub-conscience.
The offender was a man in the neighbourhood who used to run tuck shops. He thought raping little girl would make him rich … a belief that raping virgins brings luck.
I spoke to my husband about it, I said I wanted revenge, but his view was that I was only six and there was nothing I could have done. He said what I could do was to make sure it doesn’t happen to others. His view, which I understood completely, was that reviving the case with almost no available evidence would attract public shame, yet there was honour in helping young girls to make sure it doesn’t happen to them.
What is it, in your view, in the family set-up that exposes young girls to abuse, and lets the offenders get away with it?
When it is somebody close or in the neighbourhood, the social relationship plays a big part. If the offender is your father, it makes it impossible to open up. If it’s your father’s friend, the first hurdle is the respect you have for your father and then your father’s friend -- you are very alive and sensitive to the bond that exists between them and you are forced not to say anything in fear of disrupting that existence. There is no question the family set-up protects perpetrators.
Sometimes when young girls say they have been raped, they are called prostitutes by their own family, and told that they invited it upon themselves. How can a 12-year-old be a prostitute?
There is a lack of understanding and appreciation in Zimbabwe that many rapes involving little girls are organised in the family. You have families who believe that a man can be cured of HIV if they sleep with a virgin. A lot of women have been involved in volunteering their children to men to cure ngozi (vengeful spirits). The mum will say to the child “are you sure you want your father to die?” To them it’s not rape, but justified treatment for HIV and ngozi.
Is Zimbabwe’s legislative framework sufficient to deal with child abuse? What of Social Services, are they equipped to deal with this – both operationally and financially?
There is nothing wrong with the law. The Girl Child Network has been on the record to say the government did a fantastic job in reforming the legislation. The only problem is in the implementation.
As things stand, we have what I think is the best legislation in the SADC region, But I think the problem is with the police officer at the front desk who is not properly trained to handle cases of child abuse.
In the eyes of many, including those who are there to protect children, women are sex objects and no law can legislate against such attitudes. It’s the attitudes that hinder implementation of the law.
As for the Social Services, we have the Children’s Protection and Adoption Act. I have compared it to the UK one and it’s the same, if not better. But social workers have no resources to carry out their mandate -- no stationery, no vehicles.
Social services should be able to provide shelter for abused children, but the resources are simply not enough and kids are left in violent families. It would be a great day if the Minister of Finance, in the next budget, really committed serious resources to the welfare of our children. We should, as a country, be able to make sure that when a child is admitted to hospital with signs of abuse, a social worker can be brought in; and when a child misses school, social workers visit the family. We have the systems and legislation, but no finance.
You taught at a secondary school. What you do with the Girl Child Network is a radical departure from duster and chalk. Or is it?
Teaching and what I do with the Girl Child Network go hand-in-glove. It is my background that led me to start the Girl Child Network with others. I grew up a very angry girl. I told myself whatever happens, I will confront every rapist.
I wanted to be a magistrate first, but they said “you have two degrees, you are over qualified". My plan was to send rapists to jail like my hero Jacqueline Pratt (former High Court judge). After the magistrate thing failed, I wanted to be a police officer so that I could go after the sex predators. But they said I was too short and had given birth by Caesarean Section which made it dangerous to go through certain exercises.
Next, I wanted to be a lawyer but I missed one point at A’ Level and couldn't do it. Then I said 'I must form an organisation for girls'. As a teacher at Zengeza 1, in one intake of Form Ones, I found 17 children who had been abused. There was the incident of one teacher who pointed at a group of girls and said “all those are my wives”. He was taking them into storerooms and abusing them. I used to keep an eye, and kept details.
There was also the case of the deputy headmaster at Seke 1 who took girls into a storeroom, and all the girls used to come to my house which had almost become like a police station.
So you can say my activism started in the classroom. I began permanently volunteering for GCN in 2000. It’s fair to say we created a lot of enemies in the families of sex offenders we helped get jailed – I think they number anything up to 4,000. Daily, we had somebody going to prison.
Abuse happens on a large scale in churches. There is one sect where they test girls for virginity, and if they don’t find you a virgin, it is announced that “whoever made this girl unholy come and take your wife”. We have lost children to this.
You are one of the 10 people nominated for CNN Hero of the Year for your work helping young girls in Zimbabwe. That’s an incredible achievement. What would it mean to you to win it?
The nomination means quite a lot. First, it’s recognition that I love my work, I stood up for girls who are raped in their homes. This is like a gift that I got after such work. What I do has no pension, but I would swap money for recognition.
I see the nomination as CNN speaking for thousands of girls that my organisation has helped who would love to give personal testimonies on the internet and elsewhere but cannot because they are poor and dealing with everyday hardships to survive. CNN must have done research about me, and concluded that in the whole of this planet I should get recognition. Am I a hero? I have never thought of myself as such, just somebody who is passionate about my work.
You now live in England. Why is that?
I left Zimbabwe on March 17, 2008, because I really felt politicians misunderstood my vision and mission. They mistook me for a politician. Because of the pressures, my husband, who is an engineer, applied for a job in Australia, Botswana and England and he eventually came here.
There was a lot of interference with my work and I received threats, particularly in the run-up to elections last year. I was arrested and interrogated for five days. Imagine having to answer questions like: Would you run for president?; How connected are you with the CIA (because she had won awards in the United States)?
What shook me to the core during the interrogation though, and which I still can’t get over, was a question by one police officer who said "when you stop people from giving their daughters for ngozi rituals, what alternative do you give them?"
The final straw was getting visits from youths at my office who would demand to be paid “protection fees”, and threatened that if I didn’t, I would be tortured. They told me: “You know Minister [Nicholas] Goche (former State Security) and what he can do to you." By leaving, I was trying to make peace … and I hope to return very soon when things calm down.
Are you a fan of beauty pageants?
No. It’s commercialisation of women. When a certain beauty pageant winner was raped in Zimbabwe, this is when I said beauty can expose you to danger and leave you miserable. I don’t like it when women get abused, and taken advantage of.
Most of the women who take part in these things do so without knowing the risks, there is misinformation and lack of knowledge. Stereotyping women puts them in situations where everything ends physically … a woman is valued physically, yet there is much more that women are made of like inner strength, a certain degree of masculinity and they have brains too.
There is nothing wrong with beauty pageants, but it’s the general thrust and the consequences I am uncomfortable with. Freedom to do what you want is yours – but there must be security and purpose to what you do.
If you were to be invisible for a day, what would you get up to?
I love all things royal, so I imagine I would be at Buckingham Palace. I would really want never to be seen again -- lost to the palace and playing the Queen!
What is your most valuable possession?
My wedding ring.
If you could get one band to sing at your party, who would get the call?
Pengaudzoke. I like the grassroots message. You really feel you are in a community, and they talk about how people feel about situations they are in, all their messages are connected to poverty. I am somebody who grew up in poverty, so their message connects with me.
Which animal scares you the most?
I am afraid of snakes. Anything that lives underground really because that’s where we bury people – it’s scary when something goes into a hole and stays there.
How much of the housework should a man do?
It should be half-half. If a man uses plates, he must wash them; if he eats bread, he should go to the shops; if he makes babies, he must learn to look after them and if he uses the toilet, he must learn to clean it. You cannot make something you can’t look after.
If you love your wife, house work is all about caring. The only time some men show some caring is when they are coming to bed! Simple things like making a cup of tea is what women enjoy; things like picking up shoes or a dress which is out of place does not kill. Women are not looking for millions of dollars. It’s the small things that count.
You wouldn’t like your partner to pick up your dirty underwear, it’s not fair on another human being. We are cultured not to comment as women, but the more men drop stuff on the floor and you complain the more you hurt them … those things, women love dearly, and they are things women miss.
We don’t need to be bought Toyota Corollas these days, we are working women and we have the cars. It’s the simple acts of love, expression, that we are after. Sometimes a man comes from work and gets stuck in his newspaper while the woman, also coming from a 9-5, cooks and burns herself. How can she be expected to be alive in bed? Where does she get the energy from?
But imagine for a change when the woman comes home and finds the floor clean, clothes ironed, and everything in its place … the woman would want to do more for him, she would feel she has a partner not a house-bound!
What was the last book you read?
Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte.
At what age should children be given sex education?
When they are at least seven-years-old. With children, they need to know what’s a bad touch, a good touch and what is abuse. This can be done through simple drawings showing bodily parts, a child should know every part and its function in a language they understand.