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Culture, religion and poverty dangerous mix for girls?

19th January 2012
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Betty Makoni is an activist who set up Girl Child Network Worldwide to help girls who have been abused in Zimbabwe and other African countries. She experienced hardship and abuse in her own life, but rather than give up she fought even harder for her rights and those of others.

"I was raped at just six years old by a man who had heard taking a young girl's virginity would bring him wealth and power," she said.

He reportedly also raped 10 other girls but was never arrested or prosecuted, because he was well known in the village and the girls' parents told them to "keep quiet", she explained in recounting her background.

"A rape victim often hears that it is better to conceal her ordeal. As a result, I and the other victims became increasingly withdrawn.

"Of the 10 girls, six of them contracted HIV and died after developing AIDS," she said. "This is what originally motivated me to create my own organisation. My friends suffered and died in silence. I did not want this to continue. I wanted to be able to provide an outlet and source of support for girls who are brutalised in this way."

Makoni acquired a public profile in Zimbabwe in 2008, when an increasing number of women became victims of political violence. They were punished for supporting the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), led by Morgan Tsvangirai during the parliamentary and presidential elections.

Tension between supporters of the MDC and the Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front, led by President Robert Mugabe, peaked when Tsvangirai emerged as the winner of the presidential elections. After Mugabe refused to relinquish power, the two agreed to form a unity government, with Mugabe remaining president and Tsvangirai becoming prime minister.

Out of an estimated 5,000 women who were raped during the unrest of the elections, only five ever received justice, Makoni said.

As the violence spiralled out of control, Makoni set up a safe route for women to escape from Zimbabwe into Botswana, where she worked with six different international lawyers and organisations, such as Aids Free World, to take statements from the women about their ordeals and to provide some measure of comfort and support.

"Some of the women had been brutally attacked, sometimes in front of their families. Others had fallen pregnant but were rejected by their husbands. Rape continues to be used as a weapon in Zimbabwe" she noted.

As a consequence of her activism, Makoni was arrested by Mugabe's security forces and kept in a dark cell for 10 days before she was released. A smear campaign was launched against her and she received several death threats. After continued persecution by the regime, she sought refuge in the UK. From this base she has continued her work as an activist and campaigner against the sexual abuse of women and young girls in Africa.

In addition to rape, women in Zimbabwe are subjected to other forms of abuse, including abduction and the forced marriage of young girls, some of which are sanctioned by religion.

"A man can rape an under-age girl, confess his action during a church assembly and receive forgiveness on the condition that he agrees to marry her," Makoni said. "Sometimes a man justifies committing rape by saying the Holy Spirit gave him the girl in a dream," she added.

Makoni cited the example of Tendei, an 18-year-old girl who was forced into marriage three times, first at the age of 12 and then at 14. After she escaped her second husband, she was forced to enter a third marriage at the age of 16.

"She heard me speak on Zimbabwean radio and contacted me" Makoni said. " I managed to bring her to one of my centres for girls and she is now about to go to college, but her family still refuses to see or talk to he because she ran away."

Dire poverty also leads women to marry. "I once rescued an 11-year-old girl who was married off to a 72-year-old man for just $10 (£6.50). Her HIV-positive father needed the money to buy medicine."

Other forms of abuse that women experience in Zimbabwe stem from traditional cultural practises. These include virginity testing and female genital mutilation, including labia stretching.

"We use the law to protect boys and violate girls in the name of tradition," Makoni said. "Unfortunately, this will continue until the government and local chiefs, along with members of the civil society, take a united stance."

Such practises are often performed in unhygienic conditions, increasing the risks of infection and the transmission of disease.

One of the problems that Makoni has endeavoured to highlight throughout her work is the pressure women are placed under to satisfy their husbands sexually.

"Some girls are taken away from schools and taught how to be good housewives, instead of continuing their education. The female initiation to sex, known as chinamwali, sometimes entails forcing girls to move straight from the classroom to the bedroom."

Virginity tests, another area of abuse, are often conducted en masse.

"If a girl passes the test, she receives a certificate, sometimes also a T-shirt and even a scholarship for her to return to school. If she fails the test, however, she is further abused by being humiliated, cursed and treated as an outcast.  I have known of cases where a girl's virginity was taken during the examination," Makoni said.

"Girls who are not virgins are often at greater risk of being raped.  Some are even pushed into prostitution after being rejected by their families."

The rape of women is rarely prosecuted in Zimbabwe, according to Makoni. Hence, the reason for her work. So far she has received 26 awards from rights groups and international organisations, including the United Nations Red Ribbon Award in 2006, the Amnesty International Ginetta Sagan Award for Women's and Children's Rights in 2008 and the CNN Heroes Award for Protecting the Powerless in 2009.

Last year, she was named by Newsweek magazine as one of 150 women who shake the world.

SOURCE: THE GUARDIAN
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