We are very pleased to share with you an interview held November 13, 2010 with our blog editor, Crystal Smith, and Betty Makoni, the founder and CEO of Girl Child Network (GCN). GCN provides safe and secure places and spaces for abused girls, run by professional social workers and based in rural communities. The organisation also provides small grants for GCN clubs and self-help projects to help girls survive.

We will present the abridged interview in two parts. Part 1 appears today. Part 2 will be posted later this week and will include a full transcript of the interview in PDF format, for those who wish to read more about Betty Makoni and GCN.

Tell us about how Girl Child Network (GCN) came to be.

GCN started in Zimbabwe at a very poor school in a high-density suburb… with a population of over one million, unemployment was almost 80%. I had, as a teacher, deployed to this school but also as a young girl, I grew up in the neighbourhood. What a coincidence that they deployed me to teach in a place where I was born and brought up. I still had some very tragic memories of being raped as a child, of being a child labourer at nine years when my mother died. Also, my mother lost her life in domestic violence.

But what really disturbed me when I went to my class—girls were not coming to school. So I actually assumed another role of an activist in the class because I protested against teaching boys only.

Then I said, if we don’t challenge [gender issues] at the school level, the girls won’t go anywhere, because you know everybody is talking about advocating at the UN, advocating in Parliament, but what about the classroom? Because that’s where we teach children. That’s a window of opportunity to where we say, “No, no. This is not right.”

… later on [I] called their parents to school and said…”I cannot teach half a class. If your daughter does not come to school, I will come knock your door. I’ll knock it to an extent that you open it.” [And I did.] Most of them agreed with me. They really respected my position that things were not right, we shouldn’t pretend. So girls started to get reading time, homework time, they started sharing the chores, they stopped sending girls to market, to pubs…where they sold things by the night.

Things started to change and I saw them liven up. So in 1999 we said: “Let’s launch the girls’ club. We were denied a room to do that by the school head…so I would facilitate a meeting place, even in my house, even in my kitchen, even in my bedroom, even in my sitting room. I would just say, “Let’s meet.”

So I literally abandoned my role as a teacher. And then I started going to police stations, to pubs where the girls were, doing marches. We started off as 10. It went onto 50, it went onto 2,000, then we were 5,000 by 2002, and as I speak to you now in Zimbabwe we have got a membership of 70,000 girls. So girls just multiplied like that.

[Then] the model started going to Swaziland, it went to Botswana, it went to Zambia, it went to Uganda—it just started spilling out—USA, Canada, United Kingdom, where I am, and then we said, “Let’s form the Girl Child Network Worldwide, meaning we are everywhere, for every girl, but let’s mind that we are targeting Africa.”

Why do you think it is important to focus on girls?

I just want to quickly give you an example. [Two cars are] travelling on the road. One is travelling at 120 km/hour—that’s like a boy. Another one is travelling at 20 km/hour—that’s a girl. It means the car that is travelling at 20 km/hour has got a problem. In order for each to be with matching speed, we must do something…Working with girls does not mean we are not working with boys. We are focusing on girls in order for them to move at the same speed.

We focus on them to transform them from being like a passive victim to the “masculine” qualities that we want because, if they remain so feminised, they cannot face the tough world. It’s all about standing tall. This is what we teach boys: a man is strong. We can say to the girls the same: a girl is strong.

So when they are young, that’s the only way we can instil everything in the girls, so that during their development into womanhood, it’s not too late to actually change a mindset that is so accustomed to being abused.

What do you hope for Girl Child Network to achieve for girls worldwide?

We want to build a critical mass…We are saying girls should not be spectators—they must be activists. You start activism not when you are thirty, but when you are below 18. So that’s why we want every girl, everywhere to stand up… abuse of girls or gender inequality knows no colour, knows no religion, knows no creed or culture. It’s across the board. It must be fought equally.

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