Betty Makoni is building a new generation of strong, active women citizens. In Zimbabwean society, girls are discriminated against, often abused, and given limited opportunities for expression and development. Through her Girl Child Network, Betty creates safe spaces for girls to grow and connect with each other. Betty uses advocacy campaigns, media projects, and works with community leaders to raise awareness and change attitudes at community and national levels.
The New Idea
In mainstream Zimbabwean society, there are few spaces—either public or private—in which girls can express themselves on equal footing with their male counterparts. Limited both by their own lack of self-assurance and by societal expectations, they are often left to pursue only standard domestic female roles or teaching positions. The Girl Child Network (GCN) works to build girls’ confidence by providing safe spaces for self-expression, and to dismantle culturally held gender stereotypes through a variety of public outreach campaigns.
Initially established to provide support for girls experiencing violence and sexual abuse, the clubs have taken on the role of empowering a new generation of young women. From these initial school-based support groups stem additional support programs, including trauma counseling and legal assistance for victims of abuse, improved access to information, and networking. Recognizing that a society-wide reduction in gender-based discrimination is likewise needed to improve women’s status, Betty develops advocacy campaigns, media projects, and works with community leaders to change widely held cultural beliefs. Graduates of the program offer critical support through an active alumni network, serving as valuable spokesmodels for the program and its philosophy in their new homes and workplaces.
The GCN approaches are consciously designed to shift girls’ place in the home, school, and community, thereby ensuring systemic change over the long-term. Beginning in a single school, the GCN now operates in the majority of Zimbabwe’s rural districts with 450 clubs serving 30,000 young girls, and is poised for regional expansion in Southern Africa.
Violence and discrimination against young women are widely tolerated throughout Zimbabwe, leaving young girls predisposed to sexual and physical abuse, forced marriage, and insufficient schooling. Of the sexual abuse cases reported in the country, more than 90 percent happen to female children. In a culture where ill treatment of girls is part of everyday life, young girls’ fears and emotional needs often go unacknowledged. Because most other women’s initiatives focus their attention on the plights of teens and older women, there is little support available for young girls during their most formative years.
The problem is deeply rooted in long-standing cultural norms. The low value placed on girls leaves them with few available choices, and over time, cements them in roles of subordination. Failing to recognize young girls’ potential, families often choose to arrange early marriages or to remove their daughters from school when confronted with economic need. For girls in rural areas, where the country’s current economic crisis is particularly acute, the risks are higher and the consequences more steep. While smaller, more limited efforts are seeking change for women, none position the empowerment of girls as a national strategy, preferring a piecemeal approach rather than one that attacks the fundamental sources of discrimination.
The blueprint for the GCN came from an after school meeting Betty held in her own classroom. As girls came forward in need of help to deal with sexual harassment and abuse, Betty established a safe space where girls could come together and talk openly about their experiences and needs. The response was overwhelming, and word of mouth led to demand for similar spaces in more and more schools in the area. Today, Girl Child Clubs remain the GCN’s core program. The meetings offer support and specific services to young girls; providing them with a space to voice their opinions and to grow as young leaders. Betty has developed a step-by-step manual for creating a club that makes the concept easy to understand, implement, and expand. Standard features of the club include: A community-oriented launch event designed to attract early buy-in from parents and local leaders; journal-writing and similar activities; and programs intended to teach the girls to be advocates of political, economic, and social justice.
Girl Club meetings take place twice each week after school. Betty believes that in order to truly change girls’ futures, they must be reached before turning fifteen, and thus while the average age of girls attending ranges from nine to thirteen, the program is targeted for girls as young as five. Finishing the program at age eighteen, graduates in turn offer support through an active alumni network, serving as spokespeople for the model in their homes and workplaces. Lawyers provide legal advice to girls, and others have links with international networks that can offer such things as resource mobilization and support. The girls run both the clubs and meetings, with assistance from an on-site teacher who serves as co-coordinator. A vibrant Girls National Executive Committee ensures that girls’ voices remain central to the program.
Recognizing that girls in crisis have needs beyond what the Clubs can provide, Betty established Girls at Risk Support Units in two villages, with more planned for the future. The units serve as 24-hour shelters and are staffed with psychologists, social workers, and other volunteers. To tackle the cultural variables that impede efforts to empower women, Betty has further added a community development component to each unit. The Network’s efforts to educate fathers and male community leaders revive and shed new light on traditional beliefs that place limited value on female children. These influential men then become allies, working to improve the status of girls throughout their communities. Betty additionally organizes community development campaigns that emphasize the economic and social benefits that girls’ education can bring to entire families.
At the community level and beyond, Betty’s advocacy and lobbying efforts range from concrete legal aid to police training, media awards, and door-to-door community engagement. The Network advocates for more victim-friendly court practices, and operates legal support units that assist girls seeking redress for sexual or physical abuse or other crimes. At the top level, GCN works to change laws that permit forced marriages and to instate laws on sexual offenses, while also working with police to ensure that the laws that are in place are properly enforced. To spread its message to the wider community, the GCN has created “information cafés,” which both disseminate literature on girls’ issues and work with other stakeholders, including health and violence-prevention organizations, to build a broader coalition of support. Perhaps most importantly, the information centers coordinate the Network’s media efforts, collect statistics on young girls, and report and track GCN’s activities.
The quantity and quality of reporting on girls throughout Zimbabwe has undergone visible improvement since the start of the Network’s outreach efforts. In the last eight years 20,000 girls have successfully completed the program, many of whom continue to serve through its alumni network. Thanks in part to the urging of program graduates, clubs have begun to appear in communities outside of school settings, providing opportunities for older women to get involved as well. In 1999 Betty undertook a seventeen-day walk across Zimbabwe to highlight the plight of girl children and the GCN model; many of the 450 clubs currently operating in forty-five of Zimbabwe’s fifty-eight rural districts arose from this walk.
Having survived a traumatic childhood that included abuse, domestic violence, and the premature death of her mother, Betty was familiar with the accompanying feelings of powerlessness, rage, and anger from an early age. As she grew up, she pledged to become a different kind of adult from those she had known.
Enrolled in an all-girls boarding school on a work-for-fees scholarship, Betty excelled in her studies, all the while working as a street vendor to support herself and her siblings. In the absence of male students, she found a safe, empowering space where she felt comfortable and free to express herself. Betty went on to complete her B.A., Honors and Special Honors degrees at the University of Zimbabwe, and became the first woman in Zimbabwe to obtain a postgraduate Special Honors in Theatre Arts.
During an exchange program to the U.S., Betty discovered that gender discrimination and gender-based violence were hardly limited to Zimbabwe, but were in fact global phenomena. Hearing stories in the U.S. of harassment and injustices against women, she grew increasingly angered by the silence of women who tolerated their second-class status.
Upon her return to Zimbabwe, Betty took up teaching. In the classroom and schoolyard, she was alarmed by what she observed: High drop out rates for girls, rampant sexual abuse by older male students and teachers, and a complete lack of response from the school or community on these issues. Betty organized the first support group for ten of her students, and in late 1999, she resigned from her teaching post and launched the GCN as a full-time volunteer. As GCN continues to transform girlhood for thousands in Southern Africa, its success has helped Betty heal the scars from her own past.