Praise scorn for activist

One brave Zimbabwean woman is making a difference

Dec 11, 2010 6:00 PM | By IRENE MADONGO

Two years after leaving Zimbabwe, one of the country’s best-known women activists has been rebuilding her career from a foreign land and it has been quite an experience.

COMMITTED: Betty Makoni campaigns for women globally

COMMITTED: Betty Makoni campaigns for women globallyquote ‘The evidence we have will take him (Mugabe) to jail’ quote

Betty Makoni is the founder and head of the Girl Child Network (GCN), an organisation that has helped thousands of sexually abused girls and women in Zimbabwe.

Her work has earned her several awards from various organisations, including the United Nations and Am-nesty International.

After arrest and interrogation by members of the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) and harassment from Zanu-PF youths, she fled Zimbabwe for South Africa and then Botswana, before settling in the UK in January 2009.

One of her first steps in starting a new life abroad has been through networking. Soon after arriving in the UK, Makoni attended a meeting which set her back on the road of activism in the UK.

“I received an invitation from Dove, an organisation which helps women involved in domestic abuse. They heard about me online and invited me to a meeting in Essex. They actually organised an open day. I was overwhelmed as I had been keeping a low profile when I arrived here. This is because I had been victimised back home so I wanted to do my work quietly here.”

This public meeting opened her eyes and she found the police were very friendly and participated in community outreach projects on domestic violence and the protection of women. “This was unlike home, where the police were a violent force. So this meeting in the UK encouraged me to be more open and make allies in the UK.

“It is easier to set up your profile here because it is a fair environment where there is no harassment. People understand what charity work is, there is no politicising,” she says.

She soon became friends with an elderly woman, Pippa Simpson, a manager at Dove, who was instrumental in introducing Makoni to the local community.

“She began telling other people about me and my work. I would accompany her to meetings and she would introduce me,” Makoni says.

Since then, Makoni has been invited to speak at meetings and discuss her work with women from different countries. She says her charity’s model has been borrowed by a UK-based charity, Forward, which fights against the genital mutilation of girls. Forward has applied the model in Sierra Leone, Ethiopia and Tanzania.

One of Makoni’s most notable achievements was when she was nominated for the CNN Heroes award last year for her work. But what should have been a great time for her turned out to be very tumultuous, as she says certain women began spreading lies about her, which harmed her reputation.

She explains that the trouble started back in Zimbabwe, where a female journalist who joined GCN began stirring up trouble, claiming that Makoni was abusing workers and stealing funds. She suspected this woman was working for the CIO, because when Makoni was interrogated by them in 2007 they produced a file with highly confidential information.

Although the woman later left GCN, Makoni says she continued to cause problems.

When Makoni reached the UK, this woman told Oxfam Novib, one of the organisation’s donors, to investigate her. “Next thing it was published in the Herald that I was being investigated for fraud. It quickly spread around the world. I felt powerless,” Makoni says.

At the same time, two other women in the UK were also turning up the heat for Makoni. In June 2009 she was asked to help a Zimbabwean girl, Taremeredzwa Mapungwana or Tare, who was suffering from large life-threatening tumours. Funds were needed to bring Tare for treatment in the UK.

Two Zimbabwean women in the UK offered to help her raise funds for Tare. Makoni says problems then arose when the pair demanded to be paid, but she was unable to pay them as the funds raised were inadequate.

She says this infuriated them and they teamed up with the journalist back in Harare to spread lies about her.

In January 2010 Oxfam Novib launched a forensic audit on GCN. “I had given Oxfam all documents,” Makoni says,

“In July 2010 the auditors cleared me of any fraud allegations. In fact the UK police said I should keep up the good work. I am now even registered with the UK Charity Commission.

“I was not angry because I had been transparent. Everything I did was open. These three were clearly jealous. CNN was going to be my 18th award, but out of 10 000 I came out in the top 10.”

Within the two years she has been in the UK, her career here has survived a forensic audit and a public onslaught against her, but another battle rages on.

She says CIO has an ongoing smear campaign against her after her organisation publicised the plight of women who had been raped by Zanu-PF’s militia.

“Lawyers from Aids Free World want justice for these women. Zimbabwean agents are on a mission to destroy me. In November, lawyers said their case is now stronger.

“The evidence we have will take him (Mugabe) to jail anywhere, that’s the one I am suffering for. ”

Makoni continues to speak at events and is actively raising funds for the organisation.