Betty Makoni knew it was time to leave Zimbabwe when a gang of masked youths stormed into her home armed with machetes and threatened to kill her for “causing them problems”. For much of the past decade she had been helping thousands of young girls rebuild their lives after being raped because of the commonly held but tragically erroneous belief among many men in southern Africa that sex with a virgin will cure HIV.
Like so many of her fellow countrymen over the past decade, she felt she had no choice but to leave her homeland. She fled Zimbabwe in late 2007, treading a well worn path to South Africa and Botswana before making her way United Kingdom earlier this year to settle in the leafy confines of Essex’s Stanford-le-Hope where she joined her engineer husband and their sons.
Working out of a one room office in nearby Southend-on-Sea, the mother of three continues to run her Girl Child Network, which has encouraged thousands of Zimbabwean women to stand up to sexual abuse and has helped create one of the most victim-friendly court systems in southern Africa. This week she was celebrating after finding out she had been shortlisted alongside nine others for a prestigious international award that honours ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
Mrs Makoni is the only British resident nominated for this year’s CNN Heroes award, which reads like a who’s who of some of the world’s most unlikely citizen philanthropists. Those in the running for the £60,000 award, which is chosen by the public and will be announced at the end of the month in Los Angeles, include a New York bus driver who has handed out more than 70,000 meals from his family’s kitchen to the homeless, a former Iraq security contractor who was so horrified by the lack of facilities for the country’s disabled that he quit his lucrative and dangerous career to ship wheelchairs to the war-torn nation, and a Singapore Airlines pilot from Indonesia who founded a children’s orphanage in West Timor.
For Mrs Makoni, the nomination is a welcome moment of light relief after a particularly troubling few years which has seen her exiled from her homeland and the thousands of girls she has helped mentor. But even in the paranoid world of Zimbabwean politics, Mrs Makoni never dreamed her charitable work would be considered contentious.
Problems first began to arise in the early 2000s. While most of the women and girls she treated were raped by family members or deeply misguided HIV sufferers, youth militias allied to president Robert Mugabe’s ruling Zanu PF party had increasingly begun to use sexual violence to silence the government’s critics. Female family members of those who spoke out against the regime would often be kidnapped, raped and delivered back to their families as a warning about the dangers of speaking out. Rape suddenly had official backing from within the corridors of power and helping survivors had become deeply dangerous task.
“When I was in police custody I was really shocked with the questions that my interrogators were asking,” she recalls. “They would ask me questions like: ‘When you accuse high profile people of raping girls, do you think you can challenge anybody here?’ They would ask me all the time why I wanted to be president. I was innocently doing my work but my work had somehow become a political issue.”
Now that she is settled in the UK, she has turned her attention to helping British Zimbabweans confront sexual violence within their own community.
“It’s so painful when you hear how domestic violence continues to follow these women overseas,” she says. “I am coming across many cases of domestic violence among British Zimbabweans and what they need is someone to talk to in this country.”
She also hopes to inspire young British teenagers to become more involved in charitable causes. “The trick is to start them off small,” she says. “You can’t be Barack Obama straight away. It could be sending a letter to your MP, holding an exhibition, doing something for charity. But we need to tell our girls that both collectively and individually they can be very powerful if they want to be.”
To vote for Betty or either one of the nominees, go to: www.CNN.com/Heroes.