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A Zimbabwean woman who defied the odds in the fight against sexual abuse

December 03, 2018
topic:Women's rights
tags:#women's rights, #human rights, #Zimbabwe, #Rita Marque-Mbatha, #poverty
by:Cyril Zenda
In a patriarchal society like Zimbabwe, where poverty and unemployment are very high, it unusual for women to dare raise their voices against sexual abuse or harassment at their workplaces, especially by male bosses, because chances of winning the cases are very slim.

However, one woman, Rita Marque-Mbatha, does not regret the day she started what later turned out to be a drawn-out 16-year legal battle for justice after the married woman lost her job in 2003 in the aftermath of raising sexual harassment charges against her boss. Not affording lawyers, she defied the odds by representing herself against some of the country’s fearsome pit-bull lawyers throughout the protracted battle and still won.

Cyril Zenda interviewed Marque-Mbatha to find out how she could have almost single-handedly won this David-Goliath legal fight.

FairPlanet: On October 30, 2018, you publicly celebrated a Supreme Court judgment in which you won. In short, what was the ruling about?

Marque-Mbatha: It was a ruling in which I won the right to claim compensation from my former employer the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries (CZI). I had issued a summons demanding US$500 000 from the CZI. The High Court had ruled that my claim had prescribed and I appealed to the Supreme Court, which ruled in my favour. The victory has been bittersweet. I am excited but numb and surreal.

Kindly provide a summary of the main highlights of your protracted fight for justice in this case.

In 2003 I suffered debilitating sexual harassment at work at the hands of my former boss Mr Farai Zizhou who was then the chief executive officer of the CZI. I told the then president of the CZI, Mr Anthony Mandiwanza, who said as a married woman I should be ashamed to aver that I had been sexually harassed. After this, I was dismissed from employment and I went on to take the matter with the Labour Court. During the several hearings before many arbitrators, I was asked humiliating and demeaning questions. But when the matter was eventually concluded, the ruling was in my favour.

The CZI appealed against the decision of the arbitrator at the Labour Court and their appeal was upheld. I then appealed against the decision of the Labour Court at the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled in my favour in June 2017. After that, I filed for compensation from my former employer.

Did you represent yourself in all the cases?

I have always represented myself in the lower courts and the Supreme Court. I have also perfected the art of writing heads of argument to support case and on one occasion a senior judge highly regarded in the judiciary averred that the way I write my heads of argument would make a seasoned lawyer green with envy. I have also received glowing recommendations from the Supreme Court.

Do you have any legal background that helped you when you represented yourself in these cases, sometimes when your opponents hired some big names in the legal fraternity to defend themselves?

I have always been interested in the issues of justice and was an avid follower of LA Law, which I still love to date. This gave me a solid understanding of the law. I also did a lot of research on many case studies, which enabled me to make my case watertight.

How did it feel when you were winning cases in the High Court and Supreme Court against some of the celebrated legal minds in the country?

It has been a relief because I was fighting powerful opponents who literally destroyed my life and the painful thing is that despite being violated if I had lost the cases it was mandatory for me to pay the exorbitant legal costs of both respondents. It’s scary and makes you think twice before commencing litigation. Unfortunately, most presiding officers in the lower courts tend to treat self-represented litigants as second-class citizens. It is common cause that if the other party is legally represented, although your case is strong, a technicality will be used to dismiss the case with costs in order to discourage self-representation and access to justice.

What motivated you to go into this David-Goliath legal fight, considering that you were taking on a big organisation (and individual) with more resources than you?

Ironically prior to the violation at the workplace, I have always been passionate about getting justice for women and children who have been abused. The sexual harassment that I suffered fuelled my passion to get justice for the vulnerable people in the society.

When you look back would you say you have been vindicated and that the whole effort was worth it?

It has been worth it in that the story of my sexual harassment is well known by most of CZI members (companies affiliated to the confederation), which I hope in future will deter would-be sexual harassers in the workplace. But nothing can ever compensate me for the pain that I suffered. I had to sell my residential stand that was more than an acre at a prime location, in order to pay legal fees that I had incurred when I started pursuing the labour matter before I realised that the only viable route to take was self-representation. I smile with people but still feel broken inside. Nothing can ever make up for the pain that has enveloped me.

In a patriarchal society like Zimbabwe, it is not easy for women, married ones for that matter, to raise charges of sexual harassment, more so against a male boss and also considering how desperate many people are for jobs. How did you overcome discouragement that comes from such factors?

Sadly, it is considered disgraceful for one to allege that they have been raped or sexually harassed. Retaliation abounds.

Do you think legal costs could also be a hindering factor to other women in situations like you were in, from ensuring that they get justice?

Legal costs are indeed a very huge factor in making a decision whether or not to pursue justice. I noted that most human rights organisations do not want to take cases of sexual harassment. I tried all human rights organisations and even to be assisted pro-bono in vain. One is stigmatised and shamed for wanting to attain justice. The most discouraging part is that you get abused, unfairly dismissed and if you make an error you are mulcted with costs and this is a big factor in dissuading one to pursue justice.

Have you always been a fighter for women’s rights or it is something that you got into after your treatment by your former employer?

I have always loved justice. No matter how busy I am, I always have time to assist the vulnerable especially women and children. I have assisted a woman and her children who had been told leave the matrimonial home that she and her husband had been built together from the ground. Recently I pursued a matter wherein a senior magistrate at Harare’s Magistrates Court had sentenced a man who had raped a schoolchild to community service. The rapist did not even bother to undertake the community service. The man was later jailed. I also assisted a woman whose former partner made erratic maintenance payments and also withheld permission for the mother to go overseas with their son.

What message do you have for women who find themselves in the situation that you were when you lost your job after the sexual harassment?

Women should speak out against the abuse, abusers thrive on silence.

Because of her passionate involvement in women’s rights issues, Rita Marque Mbatha is now Regional Vice President (Africa Anglophone) of the International Alliance of Women and the International Alliance Representative at the African Union.

Article written by:
CZ Photo
Cyril Zenda
Embed from Getty Images
"The High Court had ruled that my claim had prescribed and I appealed to the Supreme Court, which ruled in my favour. The victory has been bitter sweet. I am excited but numb and surreal."
Embed from Getty Images
"In 2003 I suffered debilitating sexual harassment at work at the hands of my former boss."
Embed from Getty Images
"It has been a relief because I was fighting powerful opponents who literally destroyed my life."
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