Women Victims of Crisis in Zimbabwe

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The political crisis in Zimbabwe has led to breakdown in law and order, with a marked increase in sexual assaults against women and girls. Betty Makoni is the founder of Girl Child Network, a group that tries to save girls from abuse in Zimbabwe. She shares her own story of abuse and discusses the challenge of preventing abuse in her increasingly unstable country.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin. And this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Earlier, we heard from the State Department's Jendayi Frazer on the political crisis in Zimbabwe. She talked about the visible strain on the country. But one of the less visible consequences of social breakdown is increasing sexual and physical abuse of women and girls. But one woman whose life was scarred by violence is using her struggle to bring hope to others. Betty Makoni was raped as a child. She survived the attack only to lose her mother three years later to domestic violence. Her response to those tragedies has been to try to reach out to try to save other women and girls from abuse. She became a teacher and later funded the Girl Child Network. It's a group that provides shelter and education to girls in Zimbabwe. She was here in the U.S. to receive an award for her work. And she's here with us now in our studios. Welcome. Thank you for coming. Ms. BETTY MAKONI (Founder, Girl Child Network): Thank you so much, Michel.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask you to give us an idea of the scope of the problem in Zimbabwe. How many women and girls do you think are victims of physical and sexual violence each year?

Ms. MAKONI: Each year, we get at least 6,000 girls who report child sexual abuse. But it is estimated that that can be triple that number.

MARTIN: That can be triple the 6,000 number that you know to be reported?

Ms. MAKONI: Yes.

MARTIN: Do you think that this is an issue of civil order, or do you think that this an issue of, forgive me, of culture, where people just think it's acceptable to treat woman in any way they want?

Ms. MAKONI: For a long time, Michel, there was a culture of silence. With women it was mostly their imaginalization(ph) cultural and also domestication, where everybody took them to be sexual objects.

MARTIN: We associate that kind of behavior - I know in this country, there's been a lot of attention to sexual violence against women in places like the Congo, which have been at war, you know, for a very long time, or in Darfur, which is the scene, you know, of an ongoing kind of violent conflict. But Zimbabwe, despite its recent political difficulties, has not been seen that way. And so I wanted to ask you about that. I mean...

Ms. MAKONI: I just want to comment that economic challenges have also resulted in a lot of women being battered in the homes, being raped. If a lot of men are unemployed, frustrated, they vent their frustrations to the most vulnerable person in the home. So even though wars are not being fought on the streets like in Congo, in the Sudan, ours is a war in the homes.

MARTIN: How did you start the Girl Child Network, and what does it do?

Ms. MAKONI: So what I did, I mobilized the young girls in my class, after I realized that they were not coming to school and they were dropping in light numbers. So I mobilized the young girls, and we agreed that we creating a free space where girls would come, share their problems and also get solutions to those problems. So to date, we have grown to 689 girls' clubs, with a membership of 35,000 girls. And what we basically do is to instill confidence in every girl who is our member.

MARTIN: Do you mind if I ask your personal story? You were raped as a very young girl. You were six.

Ms. MAKONI: I was. I was raped.

MARTIN: Was it someone you knew?

Ms. MAKONI: Somebody I knew from next door, who raped myself and nine other little girls. So, from the girls who were raped in 1977, I'm the only one who went to school. Seven of my peers died on the way. Some of them went on a commercial sex work and died of HIV and AIDS because they had lost the hope about womanhood.

MARTIN: And then you lost your mother, as we said, very soon after that.

Ms. MAKONI: I said she died in domestic violence. It happened on a daily basis. So I really wanted to make the personal very public because then when you die, the public will know that you have been suffering.

MARTIN: Why do you think that these experiences didn't break you?

Ms. MAKONI: Initially, I grew up a very reserved girl. I was angry. I really wanted to be a police officer so that I'd track every rapist into jail. I wanted to be a magistrate so that I could send them all to jail. I also wanted to be a lawyer so that I could stand for young girls in court. So I tried everything, and I couldn't be admitted in those institutions. The last resort was to form my own organization. And now I've got lawyers, police, and everybody in the organization.

MARTIN: Amnesty International USA has given you an award in recognition of your work. Congratulations.

Ms. MAKONI: Thank you so much, and also thanks to Amnesty International.

MARTIN: You're working to get the U.S. Congress to pass something called the International Violence Against Women Act. What would that do, and why do you think that's important?

Ms. MAKONI: I strongly feel that is the biggest contribution a country like the United States is going to make to the world. We have seen that global warming, elephants, and other things have got laws internationally protecting them. If you look as women as the biggest contributor in the home, in the community and in the world, we do not have a law that protects this such a hunted species. So I'm of the view that should the United Stated enact this bill into law, we are going to have a coordinated, effective approach to dealing with the menace, because it has claimed women in the Darfur, women in Mexico, women in Afghanistan. Women all over the world are walking around with wounded hearts.

MARTIN: But what would it do? What would this law do that existing law does not?

Ms. MAKONI: It would definitely look into the issues of refugees and their rights. It will also look into issues of creating safe houses for women. And the most important thing is United States of America will be able to intervene in some cases within six months. And also to just provide women with the financial backing to projects like mine, who boost our moral very highly.

MARTIN: How are you doing now?

Ms. MAKONI: I feel everything coming to me at once. I'm thinking about every woman in the world, and you can imagine how overwhelmed I am. But I'm now a happy woman. I'm relieved. I'm feeling like the world finally brought my case to a trial, because since 1977, I wanted everybody to actually bring my story to anybody who wants to be a judge and tell me that I was not wrong, after all.

MARTIN: Betty Makoni is the founder of the Girl Child Network. The organization helps girls in Zimbabwe rebuild their lives after abuse and works to try to prevent abuse. She's here in the U.S. being honored by Amnesty International for her work, and she was kind enough to stop by our studio. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. MAKONI: It was great to speak to you, Michel.

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