Betty Makoni: Turning Pain into Triumph

| July 11, 2011

betty makoni cover picBetty Makoni has lived a life worth writing about. She never had a childhood, and was surrounded by the oppression of women, poverty and missed opportunities, and yet her life today is not a reflection of her past. She has overcome what she calls a vicious cycle of poverty and misery, and today, she fights against the very system that sought to deny her the chance at a decent life. She is a brave and courageous woman, and it is my pleasure to bring you her story. I hope you find it just as inspiring as I did.

Betty Makoni is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of the Girl Child Network, an organization which started in a classroom in Zimbabwe with ten advanced level students and which quickly transformed from a teacher-student group into a global network.

Growing up in a family of six children, Betty Makoni describes her life as one full of limitless challenges. Her mother suffered physical abuse at the hands of her father, and she saw violence perpetrated against women all around her. Seeing grown women being abused and crying right in front of her young eyes left her feeling angry and helpless as a young girl. Her mother’s seemingly helpless position was not much encouragement either. Right before her eyes she saw her mother accept her life as fate and even though Betty, many times wished her mother would do something, she did not. She couldn’t. It was only later in life as a young woman that Betty came to understand her mother’s choices – including the choice she made to remain silent when Betty was sexually assaulted at the age of six.

She knew she had to be tough if she was going to survive the hand life had dealt her. At the same time, Betty knew she was not doomed to follow in her mother’s footsteps and as she grew older, she became increasingly aware that she had an option out. As a child, she worked as a street vendor hawking fruits, vegetables and candles to support her frequently ailing mother, and her siblings. She did this sometimes working late into the night. When Betty was nine years-old, she lost her mother to domestic violence at the hands of her father. Her mother’s death, and a combination of anger and despair caused Betty to become what she calls “a rebel.” She channeled her frustrations with the injustice of it all into resentment. For years after her own rape, and the death of her mother, Betty knew something valuable had been stolen from her and that turned her cold.

Girl Child Network1However, it was this same rebellion that offered Betty a voice and naturally propelled her into a role of leadership among her peers. Unhindered by poverty and frustration, she managed to gradually get her life together. She put herself through school and became a teacher after earning two Bachelor’s degrees. She worked hard to understand the system of oppression imposed by culture, religion and society towards women in her homeland and envisioned ways to fight against the system. Out of what started as a support group between Betty and the rest of the street vendors she worked with, Betty began shaping the idea of what is today known as the Girl Child Network. Today, this network is a global organization with branches in Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, South Africa, USA, Uganda and the United Kingdom.

The idea of forming an organization that would serve as a safe haven for girls of abuse was triggered during Betty’s days as a teacher. This was when she realized the importance of creating something bigger and more meaningful. Using the classroom setting as a platform for meaningful, private and encouraging discourse, the girls were able to speak of their own hardships, abuses and rapes in a place where they felt safe, confident and assured that someone was listening – that someone understood them. Of course, Betty knew their pain first hand. She had lived their experiences. She knew what it felt like to lose a sense of oneself when one’s body has been violated. She knew what it felt like to feel wronged and to be granted no recourse under the law or by society – when victims were made to suffer in silence and shame like they were the ones who had done something wrong. And, she knew what it felt like to shield oneself through withdrawal, drawing boundaries, and feeling disgust at the human touch.

Soon, she not only wanted to help the girls in her classrooms, but girls all across Zimbabwe, and soon other places outside of Zimbabwe. Building on the classroom setting, Betty began channeling her negative energy into one full of positive energy. That power has since re-written the ending of her story and that of the thousands of girls who have passed through the Girl Child Network.

Her work has not gone unrecognized. Over the years, Betty and the Girl Child Network have won several awards and honors, prominent among which are the CNN Heroes award in 2009 and the Unsung Heroes of Compassion award that same year. Recently, Newsweek Magazine named Betty among 150 women who shake the world and, in May 2011, she was awarded the Africa Achievers International Award for Promoting Gender Equality.

Besides the joy she says she derives from seeing the change her organization brings to the lives of the girls in the network, Betty describes one of her most memorable moments as the day she was introduced on stage during the CNN Hero Award ceremony by the ambassador of UNIFEM, actress Nicole Kidman. It was her moment of validation and truth as the world watched and appreciated her contributions to the girl child. It validated her faith in what she was doing, and what she had set out to do. She knew then that she had been right to speak out and she knew from that moment onwards that she would never be silenced. Betty also describes her proudest moment. It was a 150km march against child sexual abuse in 2000. The walk, according to Betty took place with no funding, just 500 girls motivated to make a difference in the lives of others. She and the girls walked for 17 days, going from village to village spreading the word and asking girls and women to do something with their lives. Over 2000 girls came forward after the march to report that they had been raped. It was a moment of great joy and pride for Betty who says it boosted her confidence in what she was doing.

Girl Child NetworkWhen you set out to help others, sometimes you end up finding and healing your own wounds and this is what Betty says happened to her. In taking that journey to seek healing for others, she found her own healing in the process. She no longer holds resentments and anger at the life she was forced to live as a helpless child. Seeing her girls flourish is her greatest joy. She is thrilled that they have someone to look up to, something she did not have – besides her peers – growing up. The first ten girls who started with the Girl Child Network have gone on to become productive members of their communities. They are married, raising children and holding down jobs. Not only that, they are more informed to protect their children from the abuses they themselves suffered. As mothers they have been empowered to break the cycle of abuse and to shelter their children from harm by breaking the silence their mothers kept because they felt they had no choice. Their communities and their children are all the better for it. All it took was one act of bravery, one person wronged willing to stand up and speak out against the dreary silence.

Albert Camus, the french novelist, essayist and playwright, once had this to say about rebellion: “the only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.” It is amazing how Betty has lived up to this quote. Her very existence remains a threat to many, but this woman refuses to “go away” or be “silenced.”

Contributing to the Girl Child Network is not as challenging as one would think. Through the dollar a year donation drive every woman or girl child is encouraged to give a dollar a year to the network. Imagine how much money can be raised in a singe year to make a difference in the life of an abused girl if a million (or two or three million) women and girls donated just a dollar every year. The Girl Child Network is definitely changing lives. To read more about the wonderful work they are doing under the direction of Betty Makoni, please visit the website: http://www.girlchildnetworkworldwide.org, or visit Betty’s personal site for a more personal interaction at http://www.muzvarebettymakoni.org. The Girl Child Network is also on Facebook at
http://www.facebook.com/pages/Girl-Child-Network-Worldwide/109935497517.

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