Reflecting on African Girls this International Women’s Day

profile betty makoniShowing that strong women can build bridges to peace, thousands gathered on bridges for International Women’s Day this week. Over 464 events were coordinated in 70 different countries. This global effort, Join Women on the Bridge, was the second annual event organized by Women for Women International. While Annie Lennox ushered women across London’s Millennium Bridge, Firelight joined forces with the Santa Cruz Women’s Commission and Dining for Women to host international women’s advocate and 2009 CNN Hero, Betty Makoni from Girl Child Network in Zimbabwe. Betty spoke to about forty women at Firelight’s office. She shared her motivations to start the Girl Child Network. For anyone who’s heard Betty’s story, it’s not an easy one. Her father brutally beat her mother, killing her when Betty was still a child. Betty sold items on the street and at a young age was lured off the street by a man pretending to be a customer. She survived a rape and continues to speak out about it. Betty recounts the day she visited her mother’s burial place, grieving her mother and she heard back, “Don’t cry for me, I’m gone. Go and help the girls that need you.” It’s this mandate that led Betty to combat violence against girls and women and to encourage them to expect violence free lives.

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In 1999, Betty and several young women formed a girls’ club named the Girl Child Network. The girls took as their motto, “The Sky Is the Limit,” expressing their quest to realize their dreams by overcoming gender discrimination and sexual violence. GCN now operates five safe homes for girls escaping sexual abuse. They provide counseling workshops and have created a network of support that girls can rely on. As Betty told everyone on International Women’s Day, “Empowerment is a state of mind.”

Now exiled from Zimbabwe, Betty lives in London, but the Girl Child Network continues. “What I did in Zimbabwe for ten years, now does it on its own.” She explained that girls continue to experience violence similar to what she has and worse, and that women and girls must act to change this. Betty encouraged all girls to pursue male dominated careers, saying she didn’t want to enter another plane without a female pilot.

Many of Firelight’s grantee partners support girls in their programs. Firelight receives support from the Nike Foundation through the girl effect initiative and specifically the Grassroots Girls Initiative to improve girls’ well-being and increase opportunities for social and economic empowerment. Our grantee partners like Community Human Development and Livingstone Anglican Children’s Project in Zambia, Elimu, Michezo Na Mazoezi and Teens Against AIDS of Tanzania, and Eye of the Child in Malawi have looked closely at their programs, making changes to better respond to girls’ interests and needs. Their efforts to provide girls access to education, community support, income generating activities, and a lens of gender sensitivity have increased opportunities for girl children. Firelight’s role is to continue to support the development of their programs not only to include girls, but to empower them with the skills, knowledge, and self-confidence to understand their rights, make good choices, and participate effectively in making the decisions that affect their lives.

International Women’s Day provides us a moment to reflect on girls and women and their similar experiences in communities around the world. Leaders like Betty Makoni push and inspire us to effectively channel knowledge and resources to communities as they care for their children and families. Later this year, Firelight will publish a report about funding grassroots girls’ initiatives in sub-Saharan Africa. Please watch for it and join our mailing list if you’d like a copy.