Women Forging New Bonds to Break Old Chains

Betty Makoni with one of the Girl Child Network clubs she developed in Zimbabwe to provide counseling and support.
Betty Makoni with one of the Girl Child Network clubs she developed in Zimbabwe to provide counseling and support. ( Paola Gianturco - Women Who Light The Dark )
By Nora Boustany
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 17, 2008

At the age of 6, Betty Makoni could already count change. She roamed the alleys after dark, a basket on her head, selling tomatoes and candles near Zimbabwe's capital.

One night, a neighbor lured her and three other girls, ages 10, 12 and 14, into his shop and raped them.

"He believed if you extract the blood of virgins and smear it over the walls of your business, your fortunes would multiply. It was 1977," before the end of white rule, she said, "and we had no access to the police."

Today, Makoni is a prominent activist, part of an emerging network of female leaders who started programs in their own communities, branched out to the national level and later forged bonds with global organizations to provide protection through education, legal counseling and grants.

Their efforts have helped women and girls around the world counter the effects of sexual violence and other injustices through such mechanisms as counseling, the media and dance in societies dominated by men and shaped by cultural and religious sensitivities sometimes at odds with women's rights.

Makoni was in Washington last month to lobby U.S. legislators for passage of the International Violence Against Women Act, which aims to integrate U.S. efforts to end gender-based violence into U.S. foreign assistance programs. The bill, introduced last year by Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) and Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), would extend into the international arena a 1994 act to combat violence against women in the United States.

The legislation, introduced in the House this spring, seeks to link foreign assistance and diplomacy in about 20 countries, said Paula J. Dobriansky, undersecretary of state for democracy and global affairs. The bill's other goals include reducing the rate of HIV/AIDS, boosting prosperity in impoverished countries and alleviating conditions that invite terrorism.

"It is essential that American legislators look at and be forced to deal with this issue pragmatically as a leading public health problem in the world," said Kavita Ramdas, head of the Global Fund for Women, a foundation that provides grants to groups advocating in behalf of women's rights.

Ramdas said the organization has received more than 3,500 appeals for help. Some are handwritten, others are typed in Arabic, Hindi, Swahili and other languages. "We got a letter from Yahalon, Mexico, that was dictated to the village priest and signed with thumbprints," she said.

And one was from Makoni.

After attending college, Makoni returned to Chitungwiza, her home town, to teach at a high school. One day, a 13-year-old girl told her she had been raped by her mother's boyfriend. Soon, other girls came forward, and Makoni started a club to counsel the group of 10. The next week, 50 girls showed up.

There are now 35,000 Zimbabwean girls in such clubs, part of the Girl Child Network. As a result, Makoni said, boys behave more cautiously, refraining from taunting girls at their first signs of puberty for fear of disciplinary action at school. Her efforts have also helped jail men for abuses and exposed crimes of senior officials.

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