Last month we were honoured to be visited by leading women’s rights activist and gender based violence expert Muzvare Betty Makoni. She joined a group of women refugees and asylum seekers to inspire, educate and empower them at a special workshop.
Betty is from Zimbabwe and opened by talking very candidly about her experience of growing up in a patriarchal society in which some cultural beliefs led to the murder of many children in her family. Twins were considered bad luck and when over time her great-grandmother gave birth to four sets of twins they were all killed. “Of the ten children my great-grandma had my grandma was the only one who survived,” Betty told us.
Everyone in the room was transfixed. Many of the women present had themselves been subjected to and survived difficult cultural practices and remained silent, carrying the pain within them, being afraid to break the taboo around talking about what had been done to them.
Betty said that her grandmother in turn gave birth to twins, one of them being her mother. She described how when the rains did not come the villagers blamed the twin girls. Life became so difficult that the family left the village and her mother became a housemaid where over time she endured so many beatings that she decided to marry to escape that life.
A very unhappy and violent marriage followed for Betty’s mother and after her first baby was stillborn, she was accused of being a witch in the village. Her second child was born by C Section. This again had cultural stigma attached and resulted in more violence and verbal abuse from her husband.
Betty described having to witness the daily beatings, always wishing that her mother would leave, but knowing that she stayed because of her children. “As a little girl, I knew I would challenge this one day,” Betty told the gathering. By now most of those present had tears running down their faces.
The story continued and Betty told how she had worked as a vegetable vendor to try to make money. She related how, as a six year old girl, she was lured into a house by one of her neighbours and raped. She ran home in terror and pain. “My mother made me sit in salted water so my wounds would heal and we kept the rape a secret,” Betty explained.
The toddlers playing noisily at the back of the room highlighted just how vulnerable young children are, and how much care they need.
Betty then told us that when the family had grown to six children and the youngest was still being breastfed, during a brutal attack, her father killed her mother. The audience was spellbound, with some leaving the room sobbing. Others stayed, tears running down their cheeks. It was clear by now that Betty’s story was evoking memories of similar experiences for the women present.
Betty continued: “I took over as the mother in the family, looking after my younger brothers and sisters. I worked in the market to make a little money because we were poor. I desperately wanted an education. I enrolled in school and got top marks. I wanted to prove I wasn’t a victim. I wanted to return to my village with a title. Unfortunately I was expelled countless times for not being able to pay school fees. I left with 10 distinctions at GCSE and went to university. After university I started teaching English.”
The women felt so inspired by the upturn in Betty’s story that they unanimously cheered and clapped.
Betty went on: “I lost my mother to domestic violence and was a rape victim myself. I saw the girls in my class and I knew they were suffering, so I started the first girls club, to bring girls together, a place where girls could find solidarity, inspiration – sisters to hold your hand. My girls club grew. Eventually there were 70,000 girls in clubs across the country. We started holding men to account for their actions. Then the Government got very suspicious of me. “
In 2008 Betty told us that she was forced to flee from Zimbabwe to Botswana and leave her Charity behind (Women and Girl’s Network). For Betty so many things have changed in her life as a result of her determination and drive for the cause of women and girls and she said triumphantly: “Now the UK Foreign Office consult with me on gender based violence.”
Betty began to address the women in the room directly about their personal experiences, saying: “I know how important it is to find a small space for women like this one, because I know how hard it is to seek something and it feels like it will never come. I know how hard it is to be a foreigner.
“I shouldn’t be here talking to you. I should be in some rural area, disease ridden. I say to you, this is a passing phase. You are all going somewhere. Don’t give up. Wherever you come from, you carry a legacy, even though right now you feel downtrodden; you have your titles, reclaim your titles. Reclaim your dignity.
“Persevere, focus on a bigger vision. We are born victors not victims.”
After the applause many of the women wanted to talk out about how they had been inspired and felt empowered by listening to Betty’s story and how it had given them focus to look forward and not focus on the past and things they could not change.
One of the women had arrived late so she didn’t hear the beginning of the story but told the group in a heartfelt way how she was able to pick it up immediately and knew for sure what the beginning had been because it mirrored her experience of abuse in the family and community.
A second woman said that she was filled with admiration because of Betty’s candour and her determination to shout out what had been done to her and not be silenced by shame. Another said that she had listened intently as she heard what sounded like her own story being told.
Everyone had been touched by Betty’s evocative deliverance of her story and all had shared delicious food (courtesy of the collaboration of Fawzia – Psycho-education Project and Farida- Health Befriending Project) who hosted the event.
Betty later reported that she had learned so much from the day about asylum seekers and refugees and was inspired to write a poem about the experience. Read her poem here and find out more about Betty here.