Exiled for empowering the abused girls of Zimbabwe

Betty Makoni, founder of Girl Child Network

“Betty you know I love what you do, but just get up and go!” said a government sympathiser who admired Betty’s work, “They are finding a way to get rid of you.” After numerous arrests, this was the last warning for Betty Makoni from Mugabe’s not-so-merry men. Her crime? Empowering a movement of girls across Zimbabwe to stand up for their rights and speak out against the injustice of abuse.

At the time of our visit, we still hadn’t met Betty, just spoken on the phone from her new home in Essex. This was enough to give us a flavour of Betty’s character… tenacious, passionate and powerful. But the two days we spent with her organisation in Zimbabwe, Girl Child Network (GCN), gave us a whole new sense of this formidable woman. To hundreds of thousands of Zimbabwean girls, Betty Makoni is an icon.

Like many social entrepreneurs, Betty has a personal motivation behind her work. Perfectly at ease with sharing her story, she told us, “When I was raped as a child, I knew I had been wronged and I also knew I wasn’t the only one.”  She also grew up a witness to the cruelty of her father who regularly beat her mother. “I pleaded with my mother to report her suffering to a police officer but she said she couldn’t do it. The family is our nucleus and we have to stay together – that is the mantra of our country.”

When Betty was nine, her father raised his hand one too many times. For Betty’s mum, this marked the end of her life. For Betty, this marked the beginning of her life’s work.  Resilient and defiant, she didn’t repress her feelings, “My mother didn’t have an opportunity to change her life; there was no platform to stand up and speak out. From this day, I knew I had to change things.”

Against the odds, Betty successfully brought up her five siblings under the same roof as her father (he denied charges and was let off) and became a teacher at Zengeza Secondary School, Harare. Her first step towards changing things was setting up an informal club with a strict ‘girls only’ policy. Here, with Betty as their mentor, friends would discuss the abuses they were suffering at the hands of ‘trusted’ male teachers, fathers and brothers alike. In 1998, more than a decade on from her mum’s death, a desperate young pupil confided in Betty that she’d been raped by her mother’s boyfriend at knife point.  Betty told us, “Her story was the final straw, it convinced me to quit my job to start a movement.”

This one-of-a-kind revolutionary did just that. Since its inception Betty has grown a fledgling force  of 300,000 empowered girls based in more than 700 ‘Girls’ Clubs’ across the country. Through story-telling, poetry, drama and singing, girls explore topics such as leadership, health, abuse, and most importantly, girls’ rights. With this scale of achievement, Betty didn’t need to be modest when she told us, “The real impact of my work has been changing the mindset of people. A girl child in Zimbabwe used to be non-existent, but now she exists.”

But Betty’s struggle to reach such heights should not be underestimated. Cultural practices which reinforce the repression of women are widespread in Zimbabwe. The Apostolic Church condones polygamy and marriage to minors, witch doctors prescribe a remedy of impregnating a young virgin to appease restless ancestral spirits, and having sex with an under-age virgin is commonly believed to be an effective cure for HIV.[i] As a result, many people have condemned Betty’s work as counter-cultural. But this has never been enough to stop this force for liberation.

When we visited a Girls’ Club at Chitungwiza School it moved us both to tears. After a morning of wincing at the harsh realities that many Zimbabwean girls face, our emotions on being surrounded by over 100 young girls singing their signature Girls’ Club anthem engulfed us. If we could write this feeling into the dictionary definition of ‘empowerment’ we would. The words of their song translated as follows: “Abusers, we hold them in our palms, raise them above our heads and throw them on the ground!”

Thanks to GCN, the perpetrators of abuse are increasingly being held to account, but every day they still receive harrowing reports of abuse. When we met four-year old Chido, her story cut to the bone. Tentative about white strangers, she overcame her shyness and snuggled in to sit between us. The staff handed us a spreadsheet of case notes to illustrate the issues they’re handling. Under the name Chido  it read: “Raped by her cousin at home. Case reported to the police. Trial date 03/05/2010.” Needless to say, at the time of writing, Chido’s abuser hadn’t yet been charged and was still on the run.

When an abuse allegation like Chido’s is reported, GCN goes to great lengths to support the girls and seek justice. But speaking out comes with serious consequences.  Due to cultural stigma, girls brave enough to take their abuse cases through official proceedings are often no longer welcome in their villages. What’s more, the whole case can all too easily be blown out if the local police officer is offered the going rate. In response to this, Betty has built four ‘Empowerment Villages’ to provide much needed shelter and support.

The first of these sits in Betty’s homeland on the rugged eastern hills near the Mozambique border. With close family ties to the village chiefdom, Betty used her standing as a village ‘princess’ to openly discuss girls’ rights with local leaders. With careful persuasion, Betty soon won them over. On land donated by the ‘Top Chief’, together they created the beautifully crafted Chitsotso Empowerment Village to shelter local abused girls. Now a village-owned initiative, the chiefs have also founded a Child Monitoring Committee (CMC) which oversees their zero tolerance approach to girls abused in the areas they govern. The same model is now used at all GCN Empowerment Villages.

Betty’s work has created a mass following who hold her in highest regard. At the Chitsotso Empowerment Village they have adorned her old office with memorabilia including her old clothes, shoes and handbag. At every club, you can find, next to the obligatory mug shot of Mugabe, a mounted picture of Betty Makoni. Beyond her home soil, Betty has also won worldwide recognition including the CNN Heroes Award[ii] for Defending the Powerless. It’s no wonder, therefore, that a woman who inspires this kind of hero worship, was deemed a threat at a time when the government was facing waning support.

Betty described to us the event which led her to leave Zimbabwe in 2008: “I got involved in a high profile rape case with an ‘untouchable abuser’ that had serious repercussions.  A financial supporter of Mugabe raped a 17-year-old girl at knife point. I was accused of being a liar working against Zanu PF. The government infiltrated my organisation. They came to my meetings and ransacked our office.  A sympathiser within the government tipped me off to leave.”

At the time of Betty’s upheaval she had been at the helm of GCN for ten years. Already expanding the remit of GCN’s horizons well beyond Zimbabwe, she had begun setting up sister projects which now cover South Africa, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Senegal, Uganda, Ethiopia, Swaziland and Malawi. Under more normal circumstances, this could have been an ideal time for her to hand over her leadership to focus on her worldwide vision. But a number of factors have left the original GCN Zimbabwe in a far from ideal situation. Having their cornerstone wrenched away without warning left no time to wean them off their dependence on Betty. Although a new Executive Director has been appointed and Betty now sits on the Board of Trustees, it was obvious to us that the organisation is still struggling to come to terms with Betty’s absence.

All that said, GCN has clung on and is holding it all together. But only just. Their funding model follows a more conventional NGO set-up and is reliant on donations from large NGOs, trusts and foundations. Though their clubs are relatively self-sustaining, they require funds to co-ordinate club activities, run their Empowerment Villages and cover head office costs. In their heyday, GCN attracted $800,000 of support from the likes of Oxfam[iii] and other large international trusts. During the 2008/09 crisis, when political instability forced many international NGOs out of the country en masse [iv], their funding plummeted. Only now are they rebuilding their financial support but it’s far from what it once was.

It’s hard not to judge funders who walk away when the going gets tough. You could also argue, however, that GCN should break their mould and develop a more sustainable source of funding.  We’re not suggesting that GCN should become a social business; it’s impossible to see how you could ever monetise this cause. But there is definitely space to look more innovatively at new funding avenues so they can at least spread their risk beyond a reliance on trust and foundation income.

Meanwhile, since Betty has moved to the UK, she’s had time to think about her strategy for improving sustainability and delivering expansion. She’s registered Girl Child Network Worldwide as an umbrella organisation and created four different tiers for GCN projects:

  • Tier 1: These are fully operational projects with Girls’ Clubs and Empowerment Villages. At present, this only includes GCN Zimbabwe but new projects will graduate to this stage.
  • Tiers 2: These are independent projects working on girls’ rights that have paid GCN for their consultancy advice and training. So far projects in Swaziland, Ghana and Ethiopia have used GCN’s services in this way. 
  • Tier 3: These are partner projects that form part of the GCN Worldwide Network. They are replicating the GCN Zimbabwe model and aim to reach Tier 1 scale. There is now GCN South Africa, GCN Sierra Leone and GCN Uganda.
  • Tier 4: These are partner projects in the western world that also form part of the GCN Worldwide Network. They raise awareness about girls’ rights at a global level and raise funds to support the Africa-based GCN projects. The UK, Australia, Canada and USA all now have GCN groups.

This shift towards more strategic thinking will inevitably benefit GCN, and it’s not just Betty driving the expansion. Tariro was the inaugural President of the first Girls’ Club that Betty set up at Zengeza High School. With Betty as a mentor, she went on to gain sponsorship to study for a degree in the USA and then went to graduate school in the UK. Tariro then took a job with an American NGO in Uganda and instantly saw an opportunity for GCN’s services. So she founded GCN Uganda, where she is now Country Director. Tariro is just one example of lasting change that Betty is making in developing female leaders across Africa. For every story like Tariro ’s, there are thousands more being written by young women leading more subtle shifts in their villages and homes.

Betty taught us some important lessons about how best to lead a movement which achieves this kind of change. Betty shared her own experiences of abuse with everyone regardless of whether they wanted to listen. She recognised the power of children to act as catalysts for change and taught young girls that when many voices come together, the fear of speaking out can be overcome. A role model and beacon of hope, Betty wasn’t afraid to go against the grain and suffer isolation as a result. Despite her exile, she still has an unwavering dream for the future: “I want to fill up the whole world with our girls.”   

For more info please visit:

GCN Worldwide: www.girlchildnetworkworldwide.org

GCN Zimbabwe: www.gcnzimbabwe.org

Betty Makoni: www.muzvarebettymakoni.org

The names of all case studies in the story have been changed to protect the identity of the girls affected by abuse.

Copyright © Nikki and Rob Wilson 2011