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
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
Phillips Idowu, Stella McCartney and Jessica Ennis
fashionMcCartney to continue designing Team GB Olympics kit until 2016
Sport
Shinji Kagawa and Reece James celebrate after the latter scores in Manchester United's 7-0 victory over LA Galaxy
football
Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Sport
Farah returns to the track with something to prove
Commonwealth games
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game