Twice now, I have missed the chance to meet Betty Makoni—even though (thank you, Mr. Zuckerberg) we have just become friends.
She is definitely somebody I want to meet. My second missed chance came this past Tuesday, International Women’s Day, in Santa Cruz at the offices of Firelight Foundation, which supports children endangered by HIV and poverty in sub-Saharan Africa. While I interviewed in another city for a teaching job, my wife listened to Ms. Makoni warn a meeting of a few dozen people that, even as she spoke, their children were having sex in their kitchens.
I don’t worry about my own children, all of them adults, having sex in the kitchen or, pretty much, anywhere else. But I suppose the warning must have startled younger parents in her audience.
Betty Makoni does many things to astonish people. The success of her Girl Child Network had carried her name ahead of her to Santa Cruz, where a gathering at one of the bridges crossing the San Lorenzo River symbolized the bridges she has built between girls and women around the world. The Girl Child Network, which she founded in 1998, has inspired imitation in a number of countries. Consisting of hundreds of girls’ clubs throughout Zimbabwe, GCN pays school fees and buys school supplies for abused girls, offers them legal support, maintains safe houses for counseling and rehabilitation, and assists in reporting incidents of sexual violence. GCN is responsible for jailing thousands of sex offenders.
Publicity about the mistreatment of girls and women in the developing world sometimes obscures the difficulties they face in the United States and in other rich countries. But replication of Ms. Makoni’s Girl Child Network model in Sweden, Canada, and the U.S. highlights those problems. Her warning to California parents about sex in the kitchen expressed her concern for girls everywhere who feel pressured into sex before they can handle its consequences.
As well as anyone, Betty Makoni understands that pressure from the inside, having been raped at age six by a Zimbabwean neighbor persuaded by the myth that sexual assault of a virgin will bring her rapist good luck. At six she also found herself peddling tomatoes and candles in the street after dark. Three years later she saw her mother beaten to death, climaxing a long history of domestic violence.
With the help of a full government grant, however, Ms. Makoni graduated from the University of Zimbabwe and then went on to become a teacher, all the while studying the causes of sexual violence in her country. In Zimbabwe many rapes of girl children are organized by the girls’ own families in the belief that a man can be cured of HIV by sexual intercourse with a virgin. So some women offer their daughters to men in order to banish ngozi, the angry spirits making the men ill.
She started giving all her time to the Girl Child Network after leaving the school where she organized her first girls’ club. Her job had grown more and more uncomfortable as colleagues and superiors objected to her advocacy of girls’ rights. In 2008, threats of violence by opponents of her cause finally prompted her to move from Zimbabwe to England with her husband and their three children.
Yet she obviously relishes her work in spite of its risks. She told her audience in Santa Cruz that at one destination in Africa she was greeted by hand-lettered signs posted by members of the local girls’ club. The signs read:
“Look out, rapists—Betty Makoni is coming!”—Don Stoll