Betty Makoni is the kind of woman I want to be when I grow up. She is fearless, wise and funny. Her heart is as big as the continent she hails from. Africa.
I met Betty last week at an International Women's Empowerment Summit, hosted by the European Sustainability Academy in Crete. Dispensing with the usual formalities of speech making, Betty stood up and announced, "I was raped when I was 6, my mother died after being beaten by my father when I was 9. I shouldn't be here".
The fact that Betty survived her childhood is a miracle. Her story though, is not about her abuse, but what she did about it.
She channelled her anger into creating a charity, the "Girl child network", that has to date rescued in excess of 450,000 girls, across 6 African countries, from sexual violence. Providing a safe place to heal, become educated and empowered.
She came to international attention when she won a CNN hero award (presented by Nicole Kidman) for her work, which originated in her native Zimbabwe. Betty used her global platform to draw the world's attention to the fact that rape is strategically employed as a weapon of war. Despite this being recognised by the UN as a crime against humanity since 2008, the numbers of prosecutions are negligible.
A strong, unapologetic woman who won't be silenced is a threat anywhere in the world, but even more so in Mugabe's Zimbabwe. Death threats forced Betty to live in exile in the UK, where she continues fund raising for her pan African charity. She is now a gender based violence expert for the Foreign Office and campaigns against female genital mutilation (FGM). Although the British government recently pledged £35 million to combating FGM abroad, there is a crisis much closer to home.
A few weeks ago, Betty caused controversy by speaking out about the disturbing prevalence of FGM in the UK. She maintains that it's not uncommon for babies and young girls to be taken overseas to be "stitched up" or attend "cutting parties" in the UK, where group rates are offered to reduce costs.
She also highlighted another type of FGM which doesn't involve cutting or stitching but rather pulling the labia and clitoris out, or "elongating". A torturous process she herself was subjected to as a child. According to Betty, this form of FGM, although prevalent in the UK, is considered unpalatable for publication in the British media.
It's estimated that more than 20,000 girls in the UK are at risk of FGM. Despite the fact that it has been classed as a serious criminal offence in the UK since 1985, there have been no prosecutions. This contrasts with France where there have been 100. A recent NSPCC survey also indicated that 1 in 6 teachers weren't aware that FGM is illegal and didn't consider it to be child abuse.
Whilst I welcome the government's investment in tackling FGM overseas, we must do much more to combat this form of child abuse in the UK. Betty Makoni is not a victim, she's a survivor. It's thanks to her that FGM is even on the political agenda. It's up to the rest of us to make sure it stays there.
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