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The challenges continued when there was a water shortage during the course of their stay. For three days they went without electricity or water. After barely a week Risley was arrested, along with Betty Makoni and Risley’s assistant Lauren Carara. Fifteen Zimbabwe intelligence agents arrested Risley and Carara for “operating as journalists without a license.” During her time in incarceration Risley describes her difficult ordeal, ” I used American dollars to bribe the guards so we avoided the holding pen, which was a large room full of feces and urine.”
With help through U.S. Department of State and U.S. Embassy diplomacy, along with a concerted Facebook campaign page that was removed immediately once permission for Risley and her colleagues was given by the Zimbabwean government allowing them to leave, the women left the prison.
At the heart of Risley’s documentary story is Betty Makoni. And at the heart of Makoni are the girls and women of Zimbabwe. As Risley says, “There was something really amazing about these girls. Anyone who goes through such a trauma can choose to deny it, or choose to deal with it. It is critical to deal with the issues, so it doesn’t become who you are.”
After her parents passed away, Stella, less than 10-years-old, was placed in the position of head of the household. Stella’s story is featured in Tapestries of Hope. With no income after she was evicted from the place where she lived, Stella built herself a home out of scraps. “Its kinda like a neon sign for people who want to rape little girls, and that’s exactly how Stella got AIDS,” Risley says.
In one scene in Tapestries of Hope the girls happily wave their new underwear brought by Risley. “Menstruation for girls in Zimbabwe is like a curse,” said Risley. The Economist reports that five million women and girls in Zimbabwe may be substituting newspapers, rags, and tree fiber for sanitary napkins. The problem is further exacerbated by limited access to water. “They get teased and they use sticks to stop the flow of blood. Many times they will cut their hair and use it, or use newspapers,” Risley said.
Though speaking in a serious tone, Risley still jokes that she can clear a party in just a few minutes by talking about her work, “People don’t see it, people don’t want to hear it, or to deal with it.” As she says, “It is hard to conjure up, hard to possibly imagine eight men raping a three-month old. To be that far away from humanity…”
In Zimbabwe, men and women are fighting to survive on a daily basis. Risley describes how she was stunned when she witnessed a huge fire. “They were setting fires to force the animals to come out so they could catch them,” she said. “Even in the cities people do that, just to get the rats.”
Risley believes that in terms of rape and abuse, “Zimbabwe is a microcosm of the world.” She also believes Zimbabwe, on the verge of political collapse, is currently doing a better job of working with victims of abuse than the United States. She has used the film to shed light on Zimbabwe, as well as violence and abuse against girls and women worldwide.
To make impact and take action Risley encourages others to become advocates inside the U.S. to pass the International Violence Against Women Act and renew the domestic Violence Against Women Act, not just by signing it, but also by funding it as well. In telling her story Risley has spoken at the United Nations and has walked the halls of the U.S. Congress.
While encouraged by Ban Ki Moon’s public support at the UN, she is disappointed by the lack of budget for a topic that the Secretary General has stated is a priority.
If Risley had her way, she would create education programs for traditional healers for ZINATA (the governing body for traditional healers in Zimbabwe) and work to get more anti-retroviral drugs in order to re-empower traditional healers. She would also create a complete education program around HIV/AIDS.
“If I had my wish list, Mugabe and his regime would be gone,” stated Risley, who shared she would also lift the sanctions in Zimbabwe because she believes that the sanctions are hurting the people. “When you have a dictator, who could care less about the people, it’s no punishment. What do the sanctions do? Who do they really hurt? The average Zimbawean,” she added.
As she remarks in the film, the stories of the young women of Zimbabwe have now become part of her. “When I came back, I couldn’t go back to my regular life. I kept being haunted by this little girl, who walked for a day and a half to get a baked potato,” Risley says. “Now, I continue with my life, but I will never forget.”
Despite her experience, Risley aches to go back to Zimbabwe.
Risley is now working on a new e-book to accompany the film called, “Tapestries of Hope: One Survivor’s journey to end violence against women.”
Tapestries of Hope will be aired on Showtime TV (a subsidiary of CBS) beginning December 1, 2011 during AIDS awareness month.
In a searing talk, Michealene Risley shares with us her incredible story on how she gave up a comfortable life as a corporate executive and traveled to Zimbabwe to document some of the most heartbreaking and unfortunately events that are happening to women and little girls inside the country. Learning through her own experiences with abuse and imprisonment in a Zimbabwe torture center, Michealene has been empowered to stand up against and challenge these unspeakable horrors. This 16:34 min April 2011 video was a part of TEDxCMU event (x = independently organized event in the spirit of ideas worth spreading). TEDx Events are produced by organizers from all over the world — Brazil, Canada, the United States, South Africa, Lebanon, South Korea, The Netherlands, Germany, Kenya, China and Taiwan — speak to their experience actualizing a TEDx event, and the impact it has had on them, and their community.
“Tapestries of Hope” is a feature-length documentary that exposes the myth behind the abuse of young girls in Zimbabwe and brings awareness to the efforts of the Girl Child Network and their fearless founder Betty Makoni. This 2:31 min July 2010 movie trailer by Michealene Risley shows the importance in this story giving dignity to the women and girls of Zimbabwe.
For more information on this topic:
- “ZIMBABWE: Briefing to the Pre-Session Working Group of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination of Women (51st Session),” Amnesty International, June 2011;
- “Gravity of Girl Child Sexual Abuse in Zimbabwe,” GCN – Girl Child Network, May 2005;
- Tapestries of Hope website
- CGNW – Girl Child Network Worldwide website
WNN – Women News Network correspondent in India, Lakshmi Eassey, has worked with newspapers and magazines from Gaborone, Botswana to Los Angeles, California. Teaching journalism, international relations and leadership to high school students, Eassey also spent a year as a Fulbright Fellow teaching in Hamburg, Germany. As a former Director of Media & Communication for Indicorps in Ahmedabad, India. Lakshmi also has experience with programs involved with international diplomacy, globalization, journalism & mass communication. She is a graduate of Pitzer College (Claremont, CA) where she studied Global Communications and Studio Art. As a human rights journalist Lakshmi believes in the media and journalism’s power to bring about positive change in the world. Follow her on twitter @lakitalki
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This article has been released as part of the 2011 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence Campaign. No part of this article release may be reproduced without prior permissions from WNN or the author.