Interview with Betty Makoni by Zara Majidpour
Betty was raped at age of six and at nine her mother was killed by her father. Her strong personality and refusal to be a victim helped her fight for her education, currently holding two bachelor degrees.
She did not only architect her own future but as a rape survivor fought for thousands of girls and women who are victim of violence and assisted many of them. If something happens to them she feels pain in her heart and she deals with the pain by writing poetry. She is not only a poet but Betty Makoni is a girl child right activist.
She is founder and director of Girl Child Network Zimbabwe (GCN) and Chief Executive Officer of Girl Child Network World Wide, an organization that champions the rights of the girl child in Zimbabwe and world over. Quote from Betty Makoni’s website (1).
Betty Makoni has received many awards since 2003. She received CNN Heroes Awards 2009.
I interview Betty Makoni recently and had the following questions:
Q: In some African countries like Zimbabwe or South Africa there are some people who believe that if a man with HIV/AIDS rapes a virgin he will be cured. The youngest girl you saw was a day old baby. Was there any connection between this baby and that belief? Will you share this story?
Betty Makoni: First of all I want to confirm that, yes; there was a very strong connection between the baby who was raped and the myth. What happened was near our offices in Chitungwiza, a high-density suburb in Zimbabwe which is about 30 km from the capital city Harare, we have an adjacent village called Mayambara village. In an early morning of August 2006 we were awoken to the fact that a child had been found dumped.
It really brought a lot of shock to the whole community because normally babies are dumped in places where they can be easily identified. So we went to the site where the baby had been dumped, and much to our shock we found the baby had been raped. We called on the police and the police took the baby to the hospital. Upon examination they discovered that the baby had ulcerations. Ulcerations meaning that somebody had attempted to rape the baby and there were scratches clearly indicating that somebody had penetrated and also attempted to suck out blood from the baby. Because of the examination, it was confirmed that penetration was attempted. Later on the mother of the baby was found who was a prostitute. Women in sex work come to get their clients from Chitungwiza and then they take them to Mayambara.
It is very easy for women to rent places there. The boyfriend of the mother was found to have done this act and was HIV positive. The man was never sent to jail because he died while the case was being investigated. We did confirm that the baby was raped because of the myth that virgins cure HIV/AIDS. That made Zimbabwe one country which had a case of a baby being raped. We are accustomed to having 3 month old babies, 3 year old babies being raped, but just to have a baby coming from a mother’s womb was a big shock to the whole community.
Q: You were raped at age 6 and your mother asked you to remain silent. Why do some women encourage girls to remain silent instead of speaking out against sexual abuse?
Betty: What really happened in my own case of rape is that this man had not only raped me, but had raped 9 other girls in the neighborhood. This means that 10 mothers had kept silent. I think with me it was a situation where my mother lived in a situation of domestic violence, and she had been the one to ask me to go out and sell at night. So in the unlikely event that she was going to open up, my father was going to use that as an excuse for abusing her in the home. She had been really tortured in the home through beatings and extramarital affairs and my mother kept silent.
I can see many women who keep silent find themselves in marital relationships that are fragile, abusive and there is no alternative. Sometimes having to keep quiet is a way of not silencing the child, but a way of reaching an amicable situation in the home where you are married, ensuring nothing can be used as an excuse for abuse. The burden of caring for children very much lies with mothers. Mothers take responsibility for everything that happens to children, especially in an African community. So for a mother to pronounce herself is going to cause her to be mocked in society and taken as an outcast. That really also adds to the situation where they are discriminated against already from a gender perspective. The silence is not an option. The silence is mandatory because of the economic and social situation. There is no other person to provide for your children should the men send you out. This is a shame on women more than anyone else.
So I can say to a greater extent that you always find ways of breaking silence. In my case I would always find my mother speaking to our neighbor many times. She tried to reach out to talk to someone. This was not something she could easily break silence because she was a secure married woman and mother. To her, the rape was in the past and served as a lesson. It is something that I have taken as a story, but to her it was a serious case where she could have lost her marriage.
Q: You teach girls to have a voice instead of being victims and remaining silent. You build empowerment villages which provide a future to girls who are sexually abused. What is the reaction of men in your society regarding your work?
Betty: I think initially the reaction was quite mixed. I was in a situation where the school head of where I taught, and where the first club was formed, did not want anything to do with girls meeting on their own. It was always regarded as a place for loose girls, for girls who were rebellious against culture. In any case, there is nothing in our community without being endorsed by men and boys. Initially it became difficult to convince anyone that this space was very critical to girls opening up and talking.
In the next phase of our campaign we saw a significant number of men coming in as employees and volunteers in communities. In that case we had a flood of men now following fellow men who had been accepted into the network. It has been through phases of pain as I was banding activists, all of my shelters were being shut down, I was arraigned before the court to answer why I was operating without a license, I was arrested 4 times in Zimbabwe in 4 years just for speaking out especially against apostolic churches, which are politically linked. They did not want anything to do with this work because it would deprive them of the girls they were taking to meet their lustful sexual desires.
Then as the years moved by, going up to 4 years into the work, I got an invitation from one of our chiefs in Makoni village who read about me in the newspaper and was very touched by my story. As you know, my tribe is royal in Zimbabwe. They wanted some kind of dignity to the way I had started opening up and talking to the people. They donated a royal place from 400 years ago. When this was donated to me and the girls, we had an official groundbreaking ceremony and later opened the first girls empowerment village. We revived a tradition that was good practice and positive cultural ways from about 400 years ago. That also opened the door for all other chiefs in Zimbabwe to come. Chiefs are the custodians of traditional customs and systems. Once they accept and understand you and want to support you, doing this work becomes really easy.
The better part of my work was characterized by winning over men: school teachers, politicians, parliamentarians. I think I won almost 90% of men in Zimbabwe, but the 10% of men that remained were the arrogant ones. Those were the rapists and their accomplices, the ones who were walking scot-free. From those men I got a lot of backlash. That’s why even my work to bring high-profile rape cases in Zimbabwe was so difficult. You were labeled a liar, a fraud, an evil woman. Anything that was negative you were labeled.
That is why it was so hard to bring high-profile rape cases to the courts. Then the corruption; part of the 10% of men who did not join me in the struggle were actually corrupt. Here I am talking about police officers who took bribes and social workers who were in the syndicates. I am also talking about other organizations that were reluctant to deal with such hardcore methods. They all also became part of those perpetrators who worked against me. So it ended up 10% of men fighting 90% of men who had taken up the campaign in getting it to its heights. So I think it has been 90% good by the end of 10 years. We are still struggling with the 10% of rapists, those who take briberies, apostolic churches, youth militia, and those who use the political system to continuously rape. So I can categorize men into two; those who are of equality and quality and those who are for inequality and oppression. That is how the struggle of the past 10 years has ended. I need to register with you that through my own ends I touched 700,000 rape cases. I saw one-by-one and recall one-by-one each case. My biography will sample some of the cases that I personally handled and how we rehabilitated and how whole communities came to bring their support.
This interview was translated into Persian (Farsi) and published in Shahrzadnews website