How to empower the girl child

Betty Makoni performs during the launch of a Girl Child Network club in Zimbabwe. Makoni replicates a girl's empowerment model to build girl's clubs and "empowerment villages" in six African countries, providing more than 70,000 girls with immediate legal, educational and medical support. Photo by: Paula Gintuorco

When we think that more than 60 million girls worldwide are not in school, 20 million in Africa undergo female genital mutilation and 80 percent of girls in rural Africa don’t have access to education, we realize the problems of the current approach to development. Existing efforts largely emanate from the top, with little impact at the grass-roots level.

I get a sense that the more we design, the more we betray people, particularly women and girls. Is it not time to unleash their potential and see what they can do for themselves?

My story has been written about — and it should never happen again, not to any woman or girl. I did not even know of any organization that could intervene in my crisis, when I was expelled from school for nonpayment of school fees. As they say, one must stand up and speak for herself — I did, and that is why I am here.

Self-empowerment is what made me pursue education at a top girls’ school in Zimbabwe. I use the same approach now to bring girls into good schools. The solutions I seek for girls’ empowerment and education are all based on first-hand experience, which many development and donor agencies have ignored.

Quite a number of development organizations base their strategies on theories, using logical frameworks and other development jargon. I offer a simplified approach.

I have replicated a girls’ empowerment model in six African countries, and this model is focused on building clubs in schools that give girls a platform to acquire life survival skills. It involves training female teachers to impart such skills to girls. For a decade, this program has kept more than 300,000 Zimbabwean girls in school.

We’ve also established “empowerment villages” for girls who suffered from sexual, physical and emotional abuse. Between 1998 and 2008, the Girls’ Empowerment Villages provided more than 70,000 girls with shelter, school fees and medical support as well as assistance to obtain justice from courts. We saw societies transformed, and they started valuing girls and according them with rights. In Zimbabwe, some of the girls broke away from the vicious cycles of poverty and violence which almost cost them their lives.

And all of this at a cost of $3 million for more than a decade, or $200 per year to educate an underprivileged girl in Africa. That’s a very small fraction of the billions of dollars donors are churning out.

Except for a few, most young women of today have to fend for themselves to get into universities. Donors are not knocking on their doors and offering to pay for their school fees. As such, we’ve created a fund, small at the moment, which girls can apply for access to carry out a small project or pay for their education. It was a pilot project that has had positive impact, and we are hoping donors will officially recognize and support it.

As an organization for girls’ empowerment, we at the Girl Child Network Worldwide have to lead by example. We diversify our funding stream. We have started writing books and making clothes and jewelry, selling them and investing the revenues in impoverished girls so that they can stay in school and eventually lift themselves out of poverty.

We are surviving at a time when global economies face a myriad of challenges. As African women and girls, we must think fast how we can be in control of local resources to develop education and leadership. This is what the Girl Child Network Worldwide is focused on.

Tomorrow is the International Day of the Girl Child. And on that important day, we take stock of our practical actions at the grass-roots level. We will continue to launch girls’ networks in Africa which with little money have achieved so much. We know girls’ education and empowerment are crucial to making a dent in the fight against poverty and achieving holistic development.

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About the author

  • Betty makoni

    Betty Makoni

    Betty Makoni is the founder and CEO of Girl Child Network Worldwide. She is a member of the U.K.-sponsored Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative. A CNN Hero and Ashoka fellow, she has received numerous awards for excellence, innovation and passion for girls and women's rights.