Makoni Fights to Empower Women

Betty Makoni was raped at age six, a tragedy not uncommon in her native Zimbabwe. As an adult, she has worked against such injustices and has rescued more than 35,000 girls and women since 1999.

About 150 Duke Medicine employees braved the snow Tuesday afternoon to see Makoni speak as part of the 2011 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration hosted by Duke Medicine. Makoni, who founded the Girl Child Network Worldwide and four girls empowerment villages in Zimbabwe, is a gender activist and has committed her life to supporting women.

President of the Duke University Hospital Kevin Sowers said that Makoni—who was named one of the Top 10 CNN Heroes of 2009—was brought to campus because, like King, she demonstrates commitment to making a difference in her community.

“She truly exemplifies the beliefs of Dr. King,” said Sowers, who joined Makoni on the stage for the conversation.

Makoni agreed their goals are similar, noting that, like King, she uses nonviolent means to combat inequality.

“He fought against inequality of race, we fight against the wall of gender,” she said. “In every part of the world, the basic unit is a family—if the father is raping the daughter, there is no way the world can move forward.”

Makoni’s struggle against gender inequality began after she started teaching in Zimbabwe. She quickly noticed that most of her female students were dropping out and that the cause was the widespread rape of the young girls. The majority of these rapes was a consequence of the “virgin myth,” a widespread legend in Zimbabwe according to which the rape of a virgin will cure a man’s HIV. The myth has led to the rape of thousands of women, young girls and infants throughout Zimbabwe.