Betty Chishava

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow Since 1999
This description of Betty Chishava's work was prepared when Betty Chishava was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1999 .


Betty has created the Chipo Chedu Society to fight pervasive prejudice against childless women in Zimbabwe. Betty organizes childless women, helps them learn skills they need to support themselves, and works with all strata of society, from traditional leaders to mass media, to help raise awareness of the problem.

The New Idea

Women who are childless are left to suffer the hardships of ostracism and intense prejudice on their own. They have never organized, partly because most have internalized a debilitating shame that leads them to withdraw from the public eye. Betty has founded Chipo Chedu (which means “my own gift”) to help these women organize and fight the layers of prejudice that leads to their alienation.
Betty’s work begins with a comprehensive needs assessment of the sort that has never been conducted: all the data accumulated so far comes from census studies or sparse individual narratives. Betty and her Chipo Chedu society are conducting assessment workshops in rural communities that canvass the attitudes of men and women, chiefs and medics, and then begins to work with these various groups to expose and discuss prejudice. She has also worked with the national media to launch a campaign against such prejudice.
Finally, she provides a range of services previously unavailable to infertile women, including skills training and medical referrals that help them make sense of their condition and give them the freedom to flourish on their own (usually once they have been expelled from their families). The Chipo Chedu society is quickly evolving into a nation-wide initiative with a wide network of volunteers and with its own income generating strategy.

The Problem

Women in Zimbabwe are often judged in terms of their ability to bear children. Childless women are scorned and rejected because of their inability to fulfill what is perceived as a duty. They are humiliated by both men and women, and the husband’s family (which paid the ‘bride price’ upon their son’s marriage) feel that the woman was a 'bad investment.' A recent article in the New Internationalist describes the situation in more detail:

“When a pregnancy fails to materialize in Zimbabwe, women are always blamed . . . . Fertility is highly prized in Zimbabwe. Women without children suffer social rejection and are made to feel personally inadequate. Male fertility, on the other hand, is a taboo subject, to be concealed at all costs. Covering up for men is usually done through a traditional practice called chiramu which involves the clandestine bringing-in of the husband’s close relative (usually a brother) to impregnate the wife. . . .

“Experts have concluded that at least one in every four Zimbabwean women of childbearing age suffers from some degree of infertility. The pressure exerted on infertile women can be so great that even in the face of such deadly infections as HIV and AIDS some will take the risk and attempt to fall pregnant by multiple partners.

“In desperation other women will go to the limits of faking pregnancy and even stealing newborn babies from unsuspecting mothers. They usually get caught and end up in jail. Meanwhile, infertile women are subjected to verbal and physical abuse from the spouses. In extreme cases some women are unable to endure the alienation and the pressure. They feel so worthless that they commit suicide. . . .

“Zimbabwe has one of the world’s highest infertility rates—along with other Southern African countries such as Botswana, Namibia, and Lesotho—and infertility is unofficially reported to be on the increase. Unfortunately, because of sub-Saharan Africa’s high population growth rate this is largely ignored.”

Childless women, particularly those married under customary law, are forced to leave their home and are very often beaten. Mediation is rarely successful because a man's image of himself is so closely related to having children. What’s more, infertility is often linked to witchcraft in the traditional imagination, and this connection only further aggravates the abuse and alienation of childless women.

Although this is a problem which transcends class boundaries, women from traditional backgrounds are more severely affected. Such women generally have limited education, so sustaining themselves economically is difficult—they are traditionally reliant on the man as breadwinner. When turned out of their families, they often have no place to go and no skills to survive on their own.

The Strategy

Drawing on her experience as an adult literacy teacher and her experience in starting micro-enterprises to provide for herself and her husband during his illness, Betty has gathered a number of childless women together to form the Chipo Chedu society. The group provides support, counseling, training and lobbying to challenge prevailing prejudices against childless women.

Betty has mapped out Chipo Chedu’s evolution over then next five years. It begins with a basic needs assessment, which she and her partners are busy conducting now: given that many of the women hardest hit by prejudice are located in extremely rural areas without modern infrastructure or communications, how can a national group gain access to them and then provide for their needs? Betty is running an initial series of workshops all over the country to raise these questions and do some strategic mapping for Chipo Chedu’s growth. Through these initial workshops, Betty also plans to enroll members throughout the country and thus to raise the organization’s profile with both communities and government.

Her next step will involve working closely with traditional chiefs, who are the first contact point for women seeking protection or redress in traditional communities. After securing their approval or at the very least their acknowledgment of a problem, Chipo Chedu will launch another series of participatory workshops involving role plays, the polling of communities’ attitudes toward infertility, and the creation of support groups among the childless. These workshops, aimed not only at infertile women but also at members of their communities, will be the first line of attack against traditional prejudice. It is Betty’s conviction that there is in fact a moderate support and sympathy for the childless, and that these workshops will provide such passive support with the encouragement and medium to strengthen it into an audible voice.

Betty is also starting a second series of workshops strictly for spouses who are confronting childlessness. The target here is different: emphasis is placed on shared expectations, especially those emanating from the husband and internalized by the wife. Time will also be spent working on conflict resolution and alternatives to breakup and divorce. These workshops also focus on the dangers of seeking multiple partners for the wife: they offer perfect opportunities for AIDS/STD education, which is severely lacking in rural parts of the country.

Secondly, Betty is assembling a pool of medical specialists who can treat infertility and its related ailments. Doctors in Zimbabwe will very infrequently refer patients to more qualified specialists—there is not a system of reciprocal referrals firmly in place, and referrals often simply result in lost patients. She is offering to provide the referrals herself to the specialists, since she will have direct access to potential patients. In doing this, she is teaching women that some forms of infertility are medically treatable and creating a reliable network of medical professionals who can assist her “clients.”

Third, Betty is coordinating a national media campaign to sensitize the public about the problem of childlessness. She has secured connections with the Sunday Mail as well as radio and television stations, each of which will subsidize the spread of her message. She has already registered significant success in these efforts: in 1997, a radio station agreed to broadcast a short piece on the launch of Chipo Chedu. Since then, she has received a flood of letters from around the country supporting her endeavor.

Finally, and drawing on the work that she has done for many years, Betty seeks to endow childless women with the skills they need to survive on their own, even if kicked out of their families. To this end, she has developed a training and cooperative program that concentrates on strategic planning, record keeping, management, marketing, and trade skills. She hopes to establish a Revolving Development Fund to provide seed funding for the women who have completed the training.

Betty researched this project thoroughly before launching Chipo Chedu. At first, she sought out those organizations already focused on this problem, to avoid duplication and develop a complimentary array of services. She discovered, however, after speaking with such organizations as the WHO, Zimbabwe Family Planning, Zimbabwe Women’s Bureau, the Ministry of Justice, and several city councils, that there existed no program that catered to the needs of childless women. Thus was Chipo Chedu designed to fill an important void in Zimbabwe’s civic sector.

At the moment, Chipo Chedu is funded through the contributions of its members. Betty initially set up a paid membership system but quickly revised this since it excluded those most needy of her support. The women of Chipo Chedu also manage a few small income-generating projects, mostly agricultural, that help cover some of the operational costs. Costs are not exorbitant, though, especially as she has recruited the support of many volunteers to help organize the organization’s regional chapters. Each of the chapters will be managed by volunteer committees of five women each, and with Betty’s help, these committees will develop strategic plans that fit the needs of their region (as measured by the initial needs assessment work). Betty herself will be the Chair of the national committee.

Betty understands infertility as an affliction that is particularly acute, not only in Zimbabwe but throughout Southern Africa. Once Chipo Chedu is well developed in Zimbabwe, she plans to carry its programs across borders and achieve a regional influence.

The Person

Betty is one of ten children. Her parents were poor and did what they could to survive. Her father was a fisherman and shoemaker, and her mother had a vendors license. From an early age, she contributed to the family income by making articles for sale and buying and selling consumables. Her father died when she was fifteen, however, and her mother, refusing to be taken as another wife by her husband’s brother, fled, leaving the children. Betty married the next year out of necessity.

Betty was determined to get an education, although she had no money to pay the school fees. She attended night school (while married and working) at the beginning of each term, and every term she was forced to leave because she could not pay the dues. Over time, however, she acquired basic literacy skills, and began to sell some of her sowing commercially to raise money. As soon as she had learned to read and write, she began to organize other women and teach them—she saw literacy as an important form of empowerment for rural women.

As a result of her work in adult literacy, she was selected to attend a leadership training course organized by the Catholic church and funded through foreign donors. Upon her return, she founded a sowing cooperative and then a catering cooperative for local women. She convinced local officials to support the cooperatives through donations of land and equipment, and selected only those women she felt she could trust as partners.

These cooperatives were very successful, and Betty was eventually approached by the Ministry of National Affairs, which hired her as a manager. During this time, her husband took another wife and asked for a divorce citing Betty’s own infertility as grounds. Betty quit her job at the ministry to try to make her marriage work, but was ultimately forced to leave her home and was taken in by relatives of very few means.

It was around this time, facing the devastating loss of family and a general ostracism, that she came to think of prejudice and infertility as the problems that she was destined to devote herself to. She began collecting the narratives of childless women, and in doing so recruited a small but critical mass of support for Chipo Chedu’s launch. Since 1997, she has been directing Chipo Chedu.