Gender activist, Betty Makoni, has been defending the rights of children in her native Zimbabwe since she was just a girl. Her story is the reason why she developed and is fulfilling her vision of empowering girls internationally to recognize and defend their own rights.
Founder and Director of the Girl Child Network (GCN), she has been recognized internationally through features in books as well as numerous awards including the United Nations Red Ribbon Award for addressing gender inequities, 2006. She was selected by the Junior Chamber International one of The Outstanding Young Persons of the World, 2007; and in a global vote, in 2007, by the world Children’s Prize for the Rights of the Child 5.2 million children across 85 countries named her the recipient of the Global Friends Award and the World Children’s Prize the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for Children…and the list goes on.
During her recent trip to Canada she was able to speak to numerous groups of young people in Ontario and Quebec as well as other child advocates at DCI about her life’s work.
It was at age seven that Betty became an advocate for women’s rights when she urged her mom to fight back against the domestic violence that she was experiencing. She soon learned that in the disenfranchised area of Gitongwiza, where she grew up, it was not easy to simply walk away. So she became a vendor in order to earn enough money for her mother to find freedom.
This was more than an opportunity to earn her mother a ticket out of abuse. Betty quickly became a community organizer leading a group of girl vendors. She didn’t realize it then, but this became the model for the girls clubs that she would later support of which there are now approximately 700 worldwide. Being a vendor was not always safe for young girls and in 1977 Betty was raped when a group of guys took turns raping 10 girl vendors. Betty survived the ordeal and continued working so that her mother could run away.
Her mother didn’t runaway. Instead she spent most of the extra money on her children. The domestic violence continued and in 1981 she was beaten to death. At age 9 Betty became the primary care giver for her 5 brothers and sisters.
Despite Betty’s limited opportunities and resources she applied to St. Dominiques, an all girls’ school and was accepted. Against the will of her stepmother, she left home and boarded a bus to school.
“No one could believe I was one of the students when I boarded the bus with my dirty clothes and hair not well done. I had nothing”, she recalls, “On that bus I was given a pencil, book and math set; from this I learned to be generous.”
Betty excelled in school and went on to earn a B.A honours and general from the University of Harare and was later deployed to work as a teacher at the school in her neighbourhood. When she noticed that the number of girls in school decreased drastically throughout the school year she began to organize girls clubs in order to engage and empower girls.
“This gave them a voice”, she says, “A voice to tell parents I will not be married; I will go to school; and to speak out against rape……..These groups facilitate and empower girls to take on leadership roles. How will they become future leaders if they have never had opportunities to lead?”
Challenging the status quo, Betty went door to door calling on girls who had stopped attending school. She managed to bring all the girls back.
Overtime the girls clubs expanded. In 1998 the Girl Child Network was formally established not only to encourage girls to reach their full potential, but to create safe spaces for them to do so through empowerment villages. Adapted from a positive cultural practice in Zimbabwe these centres provide medical, legal, educational and social services as well as access to police protection in order to support the transformation of girls from victims to survivors and leaders.
Betty is now inspiring young women and girls across North America and the world with her story. Many are responding by creating their own girls groups across college and university campuses, high schools and even elementary schools. One 9, year old girl in Montreal, herself a survivor of rape, formed a girls club that now has 50, 000 followers. Betty will continue to support the growth of this club.
With girls clubs growing across Africa, North America and Europe the Girl Child Empowerment model has been able to support thousands of girls.
To learn more about how you can get involved and support the movement visit http://girlchildnetworkworldwide.org