As a 24-year-old teacher Betty Makoni realised that two-thirds of the girls at her school were dropping out of class – mostly due to poverty, rape and infection with HIV. Having lost her mother to domestic violence and herself been a victim of sexual abuse, Betty started a group where girls could discuss their problems and support each other. Her Girl Child Network now supports 700 girls’ clubs across Zimbabwe. When I was a little girl I grew up in a family where domestic violence was a daily occurrence. It had become normal. I remember at the age of seven standing up to my mother to beg her to stop it from happening, but she couldn’t. She said: “I cannot go because of my children.” I think I started my activism at that early age. It weighed on my conscience that an adult woman could be beaten by a man and would not run away.

I started going out to sell candles – I thought if I earned enough money my mother would eventually be able to escape the violence. But then one day as I was selling candles in the high-density suburb of Chitungwiza, I was raped. A man lured me and two other girls into his shop. He said: “I want to buy your candles, but in order for me to do so you must first come into my shop.” It was around 10pm and really dark, so nobody noticed and nobody came to discover what was happening.

I grew up with a lot of anger because of what had happened to me, and I was incensed to see my mother and other women suffer domestic violence in silence. But there was no room for them to speak out. Then, when I was nine my mother passed away. My father beat her while she was pregnant, and she suffered internal bleeding and died. From 1981 up until 2002 I didn’t know where she was buried because my father had said that we could not take part in the burial of a “destitute”.

My mother had a twin sister who escaped to the UK. We haven’t heard from her since. I understand that she is mentally disabled. Apparently she had a breakdown when she saw her twin sister dead, and has never recovered.

After that I struggled to get an education. I worked in people’s homes and at schools. Finally, after passing an entrance examination, I was admitted into a girls’ school. When I arrived I asked the Roman Catholic nuns if I could work for my school fees during the holidays. I would make the other girls’ beds and clean the dormitories. Eventually I made it to the University of Zimbabwe and studied to be a teacher.

I was sent to a school close to the neighbourhood where I grew up. I noticed that the girls were still dropping out of class and knew immediately that nothing had changed. The stories they shared with me about being raped were traumatising and triggered the angry feelings I had had as a child. I knew I had to stand up against this once and for all, and so I started mobilising the girls in the school. It was only in this space that I could get them to tell me their stories – girls who spend all their time in the home don’t come out to talk.

They were dropping out of school after having been raped, impregnated, infected with HIV, or forced to marry. Many of them were tied up at home caring for sick parents. The rest left school to look for domestic work.

When 50 girls showed up I said to them: “Let’s declare this club launched. This is our platform; this is our free place to meet and cry and dance and talk, and to find solutions. We must unleash the potential that is inside us. We might be victims, but together we can be transformed.”

I shared with them the story of my own journey. I told them we could all get somewhere, we could all break the cycles of poverty and gender-based violence, but the more we kept quiet about it the more men would take advantage. Soon I had 10 clubs in Chitungwiza alone. I resigned as a teacher and began working on them full-time.

My husband, an engineer, came from a wealthy family. I would tell him that he didn’t need all his money and could give some of it to me. When he gave me money to buy groceries I would spend it on the girls’ clubs. Quite soon he noticed that I was not so interested in setting up a family, and more interested in setting up a girls’ support network.

By 2000 there were 150 girls’ clubs in Zimbabwe. Now I have three empowerment villages. These are like one-stop shops, or malls, where girls can get counselling, medical care and a shelter from violence. There are a lot of girls suffering from violence in their lives and homes; they stay with us until their cases are heard by the police and the courts. We send them to school and provide them with the basics. Many have HIV or Aids and for them we try to provide antiretrovirals.

We also teach the girls self-defence, so that if a man attacks them they know what to do to incapacitate the male organ; they also know how to use perfume as a weapon. But we don’t want to teach them violent techniques. Instead we teach them the difference between defending themselves and being someone who is offensive.

A lot of men seem to think I am here to arrest them. They take me to be somebody who is bitter about my own experiences and looking for revenge. When I started talking about domestic violence they didn’t want to hear it. At the time I was the chair of the Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe and they questioned my position. But I think now they understand that I will never take another stance and they will just have to live with me.

Men in Zimbabwe are in layers. We have got perpetrators who don’t see eye to eye with me, and we have got fathers whose daughters were raped and who want me to do something. (A father can be very sympathetic to his daughter but he still does not want to hear that women are equal to men.) Then we have high-profile politicians who rape and use their position to get away with it.

I have been involved in cases of rape perpetrated by men belonging to Zanu-PF. But when I try to bring these men to justice I have been victimised. It is said of me that I am being political and trying to bring down the ruling party, and that I am against Zimbabwe. It got to the stage where I couldn’t walk anywhere or do anything without being targeted. I feel that this is an abuse of political privilege. We now live in a country where certain men have decided not to look at the problem of rape; instead they mix it up with politics and accuse me of collaborating with the West to bring the country down.

The voices of Zimbabwe’s women have been suppressed – this is a party-political game that we don’t understand. When a woman is murdered because she is married to a member of the opposition [Dadirai Chipiro, wife of a local MDC leader, was tortured and killed in the run up to the June 27 election] – what can be the justification for that?

If you look at Zimbabwe through the eyes of the press it would appear that this is a country of men only. Where are the Zimbabwean women when all this is happening?

• Betty Makoni was talking to Anna Bruce-Lockhart. For more information about Makoni’s work, visit GCN website website.