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Zimbabwe Gender Activist Fights to Protect Victims of Violence against Women and Girls


From Zimbabwe, a crusader for curbing human rights abuses against women has come to Washington to lobby Congress to pass the International Violence against Women Act. The bipartisan proposal, sponsored by current and former Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairmen Joseph Biden and Richard Lugar, would authorize US funds, guidance, and resources to protect global victims of sexual violence against women. Former high school teacher Betty Makoni is credited with empowering hundreds of thousands of Zimbabwean girls to stay in school despite dire poverty and aggression to transform their victimization into leading healthy, productive lives. Makoni says that with US help, these accomplished survivors will continue to reshape traditional attitudes of abuse and suffering that have been perpetuated in every society around the world.

“Everybody’s daughter is at risk, so our initial point of interest is to make sure everybody is aware that the problem is cross-cutting, regardless of political position, religious affiliation, or social status,” she said.

Since Zimbabwe’s March 29 election standoff, several women have become victims of violence and political intimidation. Of the 200 opposition activists recently incarcerated by authorities, there are reports of beatings, including of pregnant women and children. Makoni says her network has made progress in raising awareness of such abuse to make it harder for perpetrators to get away with carrying it out.

“I think that it’s good that we have already created a culture of prevention. It’s good that the people whose rights are being violated actually know where to go so if whoever is perpetrating can do it today, but it’s not sustainable. We have set up areas where we can assist the girls, and they know where to seek protection and get help,” she notes.

In 1998, borrowing a 400-year-old Makoni ethnic group protection strategy devised by tribal chieftains from Zimbabwe’s Manicaland region, Betty Makoni set up three safe homes or “empowerment villages” where abused or raped girls could go to work out their issues and become rehabilitated. Over the past 10 years, Makoni says many former victims from her Girl Child Network have continued with their education and gone on to become successful doctors, lawyers, and teachers.

“When you come to an empowerment village, you are not coming as a victim. You are coming to have your confidence boosted to go back to school. And also you are coming to be reunified with friendly families and also other boarding schools that we know are girl-child-friendly. At least five thousand girls are under our scholarship program and they’re in school. 150 girls are in boarding school, and we have got up to 89 girls who are in university who came as orphans or sexually abused children, whom we are supporting back in school. But our network has trained up to 500-thousand girls since 1998,” she points out.

Betty Makoni’s struggle will continue as she travels around the United States and Africa to help gain new supporters for the International Violence against Women Act. Last Saturday, she received the 2008 Ginetta Sagan Award for Women’s and Children’s Rights, a ten-thousand dollar prize from Amnesty International to promote her work in Zimbabwe as a model for other African countries. On a tour this week of major US cities and later in May in several African countries, Makoni will try to enlist allies behind the US-led integrated approach to ending abusive practices and changing public attitudes toward assaulted women and girls.

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