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Lakshmi Eassey – WNN Reviews
(WNN) ZIMBABWE, Africa: Three-year-old Runyararo screams every time she sees a man. She was found abandoned at a bus station. When the Girl Child Network Worldwide (GCNW) took her for an examination there was evidence of sexual assault, and attempted penetration, a clear sign of rape though she has not yet been tested for HIV/AIDS.
In a country where the myth that ‘sex with a virgin’ can cure HIV/AIDS, there is a high probability she has already contracted the virus. Zimbabwe is in the top five AIDS countries in the world, with some estimating that 80% of adults live with AIDS.
Michealene Cristini Risley’s documentary film, Tapestries of Hope, exposes the myth of the HIV/AIDS cure claimed by those who believe that the rape of a young virgin will cure someone suffering from the disease. Documenting GCNW advocacy for children, Risley considered adopting young Runyararo during the filming, but with her own three young boys and a husband at home she decided against it.
HIV/AIDS has taken a devastating toll on the country as women and girls have been continued to be vulnerable to rape violence. “Wars and armed conflicts generate fertile conditions for the spread of HIV,” says a 1998 report by UNAIDS (Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS).
Many Zimbabwe women today face the ‘aftermaths’ of the country’s decades long history of para-military conflict that places masculinity, violence and aggression on a higher tier. “As Zimbabwe is undergoing a constitutional reform process, and is anticipating an election, violence is on the increase,” says Grace Chirenje-Nachipo in The Zimbabwean. “In Zimbabwe today, political violence is an issue that leaves women at the very heart of conflict aftermath.”
In an interview with Risley at her home in Silicon Valley she says Runyararo is “Consciously aware of what happened to her… She has this inner courage.”
Risley’s own experience with abuse led her to make her first film, Flashcards, based on her own childhood experience of sexual abuse with a focus on increasing public awareness of the topic. Her first film was nominated for an Academy Award and shown on PBS.
After hearing about Zimbabwe from Paulo Gianturco, friend and author of “Women Who Light the Dark.” Gianturco told Risley she had to go to Zimbabwe. As Risley recalls, “I kept saying yeah, yeah, yeah. I am not going to Africa.” Another friend also told Risley she had to meet the girls at GCNW. At that point, “They weren’t talking about the myth, just how wonderful these girls are.”
In 2007 Betty Makoni, the founder of the GCNW, and Risley sat down for breakfast in the California Bay Area. Both shared abuse as young girls. Makoni was raped at age 6 and saw her father beat her mother to death. After meeting Makoni, Risley promised to visit Zimbabwe.
Makoni began GCNW (originally named GCN – Girl Child Network) in 1999 while she was head of the English department teaching literature at a High School in Chitungwiza, near Harare, Zimbabwe. What initially began as a theatre arts club has now evolved into a network of over 700 chapters and 30,000 primary and high school members throughout the country. As of 2007, GCNW had received more than 20,000 reports of sexual abuse in cases of girls who are younger than 16-years-old.
The focus is based on human rights and children, and the effects of gender violence. GCNW aims to shame the perpetrators rather than the victims. At GCNW girls are provided with a document to fill out – however long it takes them to fill out from a couple hours to a number of weeks is accomodated. At GCNW “the first thing that happens is that girls are allowed to lead the direction of their healing,” Risley says. This brings girls from “powerlessness to powerful.” GCNW also does peer-to-peer counseling which Risley sees as critical, “Once you begin to talk about it, is when you begin to heal,” she says to WNN – Women News Network.
Betty Makoni left Zimbabwe in 2008, after Zimbabwe’s President Robert Gabriel Mugabe allegedly asked for Makoni’s severed head. Makoni now lives in the UK is an active member of the GCNW board.
The reality of the myth that sex with a virgin can cure a man of HIV/AIDS, along with conditions on-the-ground for many in Zimbabwe, were worse than Risley had imagined. As Risley says of her arrival in Zimbabwe, “It was like landing in hell.” As a result of sporadic electricity, the landscape “looked like we are landing in the middle of nowhere.” In addition none of the employees were smiling. People looked angry. As soon as Risley was picked up by Makoni, Makoni looked back to see if they were being followed. It was then, when the question Risley’s husband asked before Risley left, rang in her ears: “If you don’t come back from Zimbabwe, would it have been worth it?”