"I was raped when I was 6 years old," Betty Makoni, a lady from Zimbabwe, recalls. Her attacker was a local shopkeeper. Her mother would not allow her to report the abuse.
"She said, 'Shh, we don't say that in public,'. I had no shoulder to cry on."
Three years later, she witnessed her father murder her mother. In that moment, Makoni said she realized the potentially deadly consequence of a woman's silence.
"I told myself that no girl or woman will suffer the same again," she says.
Believing an education would provide her the best opportunity and means to speak out, Makoni earned two university degrees and became a teacher. While teaching, she noticed that girls were dropping out of school at an alarming rate. She approached her students with an idea.
"I said to girls, 'Let's have our own space where we talk and find solutions,' " Makoni said. Girl Child Network was born.
By the end of the first year, there were 100 GCN clubs throughout Zimbabwe where girls could find support. Makoni said she was not surprised: "Every woman and girl identified with the issues that we were raising," she said.
In 2000, she quit her teaching job to volunteer with GCN full time. "I decided to become an advocate because I walked my own journey to survival," she said.
The following year Makoni successfully procured a piece of land and opened the organization's first empowerment village, designed to provide a haven for girls who have been abused. Girls are either rescued or referred to the village by social services, the police and the community. The healing begins as soon as a girl arrives.
"In the first 72 hours, a girl is provided with emergency medication, reinstatement in school, as well as counseling," said Makoni.
It is important to her that the girls are in charge of their own healing. "It gives them the confidence to transform from victims to leaders," she explained.
But for Makoni, speaking out came with a high personal cost. In 2008, she was forced to flee her native country. "I left Zimbabwe because my life was in danger as a result of my project being interpreted politically."
Today, she lives with her family in the United Kingdom. She still serves as executive director of her organization and shows no signs of slowing down.
Betty is one of the ten people chosen by CNN as "CNN Heroes". Look at their profiles and choose the one you find the most inspirational here.
Text adapted from Betty's profile page on CNN. Picture courtesy Davison Makanga/IPS