I met Betty Makoni back in spring of 2007. I was introduced to her work by photojournalist and dear friend, Paola Gianturco.
Paola and I were going to hear Betty speak in San Francisco but by accident when I called for a ticket to the event, Sara Dotlich, who was head of African Affairs for IDEX, answered the phone. Idex is a non-profit "that provides grants to those who promote sustainable solutions to poverty."
After my conversation with Sara, she arranged for Betty and I to meet in a small Cafe in San Francisco. We talked and shared our personal stories of abuse as children. Betty's story was horrific. By the age of 9, she had already been raped and watched her mother beaten to death before her eyes. We spoke the same language; a language of survivors who turned their personal stories into something more collective to change the world. We were like an old married couple, we finished each others sentences, read each others minds and left that restaurant as life long friends. In truth a relationship that was cemented by the same origins of pain. A pain that for both of us caused a deep and burning desire to help others.
So much of the anger and resentment surrounding rape and abuse is stirred in a large bowl with love and laughter and other confusing factors. It is tough to mix those ingredients together into anything that resembles a normal life. The combination of those feelings makes sifting through the items for the recipe painful at the very least.
I suppose part of what Betty and I had in common at that point was the resilience to keep moving through the pain to find a place of comfort. We both had healed enough to create productive lives and raise families. Both of us had a strong desire to help others through the maze of abuse. Even if helping others is defined by simply telling your personal story -- it is enough to make other survivors feel less alone.
Betty founded an organization called The Girl Child Network, a place where girls could come after being raped or abused. The number of children abused and raped in Zimbabwe is staggering. This behavior is fueled by the belief that if a man rapes a virgin he will cure his AIDS. Makoni has created three empowerment villages in Zimbabwe to help girls devastated by this myth. She has saved thousands of lives. Betty continues to tell her story, even though it is difficult. She must encounter those traumatized every step of the way. Sometimes she can help them, sometimes she cannot, but pain follows her like the skin upon her frame. Vital but unwanted. The aftermath of abuse, no matter how well you have healed, often hits you when you least expect it.
For Betty, telling the truth and helping these girls has put her life at risk. After I went to Zimbabwe to tell her story, and after my own imprisonment, they hauled her into prison for harboring me, an "alleged CIA" agent. In the prison cell, she had to stand for days without food or water. Despite this, Betty never waivered from her support of the girls.
So many people REFUSE to discuss rape and abuse. I often say that I can clear a room, when I start talking about this issue. It would be funny, if it wasn't so true. The only way we can begin to understand and eradicate abuse is by talking about it. According to Amnesty International: "One out of every three women worldwide is beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime."
According to the US Census Bureau roughly 3 billion women inhabit the globe. One third of that is 1.1 billion women. Think about this-1.1 billion women will face abuse in their life time. Isn't it time we stood up and said, enough?
By they way, Betty isn't only my hero, check out her recognition at CNNHEROES.
Please check out our upcoming documentary on Betty Makoni.