Producer, Educator & Writer
This article originally appeared in the Women News Network
(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 byUNAIDS (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?”
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.