CLIO TALKS BACK: Clio is inspired by women who see a problem and take action

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Betty Makoni
Last month Clio joined friends in San Francisco to celebrate Betty Makoni, a brave and determined activist from Zimbabwe who received the 2008 Ginetta Sagan Award for Women’s and Children’s Right, in conjunction with Amnesty International USA.

Betty has established a Girl Child Network to empower girls and young women by forming clubs in which they can come together to confront widespread sexual and domestic violence in their own homes, schools, neighborhoods, and throughout the country. According to Makoni, the extent of the sexual violence problem is scarcely imaginable, and not limited to what happens within the household -- and the AIDS epidemic makes the problem far worse. Betty Makoni has broken the silence that surrounded sexual violence and has created a space in Zimbabwe's civil society for these problems to be exposed, debated, and confronted – by girls and young women themselves. For this she has been arrested, threatened, and yet she is not intimidated. She has a mission that makes a huge difference.

This excerpt from a speech Betty made to the Global Philanthropy Forum in 2003 gives the substance of her mission:

“We are not trying to confront any extraordinary issues here. Only issues in the home, issues in the community, and issues in the school. I come from Zimbabwe. To be realistic, but not sounding very strange, our situation is a little bit chaotic. One in five adults are HIV positive. 3,000 deaths due to HIV/AIDS per week. 80 percent unemployment. 25 percent of my girls are out of school. And sometimes a day hardly passes by without a girl reporting rape. . . .

“As a teacher, I saw it happening. And I really felt it coming. That unless we start challenging the systems that are currently in existence and come up with an activist, development organization that supports and helps young girls to develop, there is going to be continuous gender imbalance in our society.

“Now, I’m not here to leave a negative picture about my country. I’m here to actually demonstrate that nothing is impossible. I’m one of the visionary activists that emerged as a new breed of women. I’m only aged 32 [Clio: in 2008 Makone turned 37 - still a very young woman].

“Rape, for a long time, has been an issue that was swept from under the carpet. Even as we graduated from universities, empowered academically, educationally, and economically as women, we felt it a taboo area to explore. Women’s organizations, I should acknowledge a lot of work they did, but they forgot to address the issues affecting young girls at the development states.

“Our organization started with a girls’ club in 1998. I was the teacher who saw the girls being jeered at. I was the teacher, who was really moved when a male teacher said, “You see all these girls, they are my wives.” Then I wondered, they were all under 15-years old. How could they be his wives, because he had simply had sex with them? That was a nightmare to me. And something had to be done.”

“The Girl Child Network came into existence on 21 March 1999. . . .”

Betty Makone has taught her girls that they can keep predatory men at bay by invoking the “one-meter rule” -- which means “don’t come any closer than that without my permission.” She has taught them to respect themselves.

Clio reminisces: The innovative campaign begun by Betty Makoni in Zimbabwe reminds Clio of an equally important series of campaigns in nineteenth-century England, headed by Frances Power Cobb. Beginning in the 1860s, she challenged “the divine right of husbands,” and exposed what family life was really like for wives and daughters within the supposed sanctuary of the family. Her campaign also raised important questions about male use and abuse of alcohol, which all too often lay behind the violence and rape perpetrated on women and children in domestic settings. It also brings to mind 20th century campaigns launched by women against government-sanctioned prostitution, the traffic in women and children, and much more recently, the campaigns against female genital mutilation.

Clio believes that if we can address and resolve these issues of sexual violence, the world will become a more peaceful place. And girls, aware and empowered, can become the remarkable, responsible adults they are capable of being. Knowing that others have gone before us should provide inspiration to put a stop to the abuse of girls and women, whether sexual,intellectual, or economic, once and for all.