CNN Heroes award nominees announced

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

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.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Ashdown Group: Graduate UI Developer - HTML, CSS, Javascript

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Graduate UI Application Developer - ...

Ashdown Group: B2B Marketing Manager - Events, Digital, Offline

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: B2B Marketing Manager (Events, Digit...

Day In a Page

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?
Season's finale brings the end of an era for top coaches and players across the continent

The end of an era across the continent

It's time to say farewell to Klopp, Clement, Casillas and Xavi this weekend as they move on to pastures new, reports Pete Jenson
Bin Laden documents released: Papers reveal his obsession with attacking the US and how his failure to keep up with modern jihad led to Isis

'Focus on killing American people'

Released Bin Laden documents reveal obsession with attacking United States
Life hacks: The innovations of volunteers and medical workers are helping Medécins Sans Frontières save people around the world

Medécins Sans Frontières's life hacks

The innovations of volunteers and medical workers around the world are helping the charity save people
Ireland's same-sex marriage vote: As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?

Same-sex marriage

As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?
The underworld is going freelance: Why The Godfather's Mafia model is no longer viable

The Mafia is going freelance

Why the underworld model depicted in The Godfather is no longer viable