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Series on Women Changing the World: Betty Makoni, Zimbabwe

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Gender-based violence represents a global problem, especially for the girl child. Girls in many parts of the world are denied safety and their fundamental rights are often ignored. "Girls are discriminated against all over the world for two reasons: because they are children and because they are girls. This means that girls may be the most vulnerable group in society," states Betty Makoni, activist and advocate for girls in Zimbabwe.

Betty understands the gravity of the situation all too well. For nearly two decades, she has spoken out about violence against children and stood up for girls across Zimbabwe. Despite death threats from government officials, Betty continues to work to protect children from all forms of abuse. For her dedication and courage, we honor her work and accomplishments in our series on Women Changing the World.

Betty was six years old when a local shopkeeper raped her. Silenced by her mother, she didn't dare to speak out about the night she was locked in a dark room and held at knifepoint. Unfortunately, the story of Betty's childhood is all too familiar. A girl falls victim to the exploitation of adults in her home, school, or community, and is then further victimized through forced silence.

While Betty's past shares the same tragic beginning as girls worldwide, her story takes a unique turn. After Betty's father murdered her mother, Betty recognized the dangerous consequences of a woman's secrecy. "I told myself that no girl or woman will suffer the same," states Betty, reflecting on her childhood. "What happened to me, my mother and grandmother should never happen to any girl again." Despite being orphaned at the age of nine, Betty fought to stay in school because she knew this was the only way she could ever speak out about her past.

After receiving her university diploma, Betty became a teacher. Working in the classroom, Betty soon noticed the alarming rate at which girls drop out of school and upon further exploration, she learned more about the violence the girls experienced. Recognizing the girls' need to speak about their experiences with abuse, Betty created an empowerment club so that girls could talk in a secure environment. With her help, schools across Zimbabwe initiated similar programs and in March 1999, Betty launched the Girl Child Network (GCN), uniting all clubs under one association.

Through the Girl Child Network, Betty oversees 35,000 members, manages over 500 girls' empowerment clubs, and has established three safe villages for girls particularly vulnerable to violence. Since the creation of the first village in 2001, Betty has saved girls from abuse, child labor, forced marriage, trafficking and assault. The safe villages provide clothing, food, medical care, shelter and schooling, but above all else, they provide the girls with safety and refuge. With the guidance of village mothers and the support of their new sisters, the girls make remarkable progress in overcoming their physical and emotional scars.

In 2003, the Women's World Summit Foundation awarded Betty with the Prize for Women's Creativity in Rural Life, recognizing her projects and campaigns that have brought justice and peace to countless girls and families across Zimbabwe. Since 2003, Betty has received over eighteen global and national awards including the CNN 2009 Hero award for protection of the powerless and as of June 9, 2012, the prestigious Afrikan Goddess Award. Her safe villages are the subject of Michealene Cristini's 2009 documentary, Tapestries of Hope, and her work is recognized in the newly released book On the Up by Rob and Nikki Wilson.

To date, Betty is the director of Girl Child Network (GCN) Zimbabwe and Chief Executive Officer of Girl Child Network Worldwide. She helped establish the Girl Child Network USA, a newly registered network, and continues to work as a speaker at leadership events and functions globally. Yet perhaps her most inspirational role is as a mentor to hundreds of girls across Zimbabwe who now follow in her footsteps. From girls to women, they continue to raise their voices declaring, "Never again, not any woman or girl again" (which is fittingly the title of Betty's upcoming autobiography).

While this issue of violence against the girl child remains a complex challenge in many countries worldwide, one thing is clear -- violence against girls is neither excusable, nor inevitable. With strength and determination, one person has changed the futures of tens of thousands of girls, positively affecting not only their lives, but also the lives of their families, communities, and children to come. We invite you to explore our website to learn more about the influential work of women like Betty, whose accomplishments serve as inspiration to women worldwide.

(Writer Bethany Saul contributed to this report)