GROWING up in a township which was portrayed as a criminal hub in Mzilikazi, Bulawayo, Rita Marque Mbatha, pictured, intended to change that perception. She immediately took interest in criminal justice to fight for the underdog, and defend the vulnerable.
Born to a factory worker father whose finances were constrained, Mbatha had to forgo her childhood dreams of pursuing law and focus on helping to pay school fees for her siblings soon after attaining her Diploma in Accounting from Cambridge Tutorial College.
While pursuing her career in Accounting with one of Zimbabwe’s prestigious organisation, in 2003 she encountered sexual harassment from one of the then top bosses and paid a heavy prize for speaking up. The lawyer spirit that was ingrained deep within her heart since childhood instantly came out.
“When I reported sexual harassment at my workplace, I was told that as a married woman, I should be ashamed to say that I had been sexually harassed, even my husband was really upset, angry but became very supportive after he calmed down,” Mbatha told the Daily News on Sunday.
“Instead of being ashamed, I confronted the organisation (Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries) head on. I learnt how to write heads of arguments to support my case and also bought Labour Court Rules, Magistrate Court Rules, High Court Rules and Supreme Court Rules books in order to follow the court rules in pursuing my matter.
“One of the people who motivated me to keep fighting was Susan Williams from the British High Commission. Her positive response to my plight lifted my depression and encouraged me to fight on.
“As a survivor of sexual harassment I fought and got justice at great expense as I had to sell my stand at a plush residential area in Bulawayo to fund litigation. In the process my file which was very bulky disappeared and luckily I had made additional copies.”
Mbatha self-represented herself in court and her matter dragged for 17 years as the defendant fought through thick and thin to escape with his crime.
It was only last year in November when her case was finalised at the Supreme court where Mbatha won the case.
“I finally got justice but the amount of years l took battling at the courts is not encouraging for survivors to speak out. The justice system is used to perpetuate injustice at every turn,” she said.
“My wish is that the justice system should automatically expedite court cases where one is sexually harassed or abused at the work place. After I got a positive outcome at the Supreme Court, I got emails and messages from Twitter and Facebook and other victims who have been silent reached out for assistance.
“Unfortunately because of the stigma most victims and survivors prefer to keep their trauma private.”
Mbatha has become a powerful symbol of hope, survival and a vocal advocate for sexual and domestic violence victims which has seen her getting decorated with various Special Courage awards over her many years of seeking justice for herself and others.
She boosts of a gold certificate award by Joanne Archambault, the founding director of End Violence Against Women International — an organisation based in Washington, USA for her commitment and dedication to improving the criminal justice and community responses to sexual assault.
Knowing the pain of being a sexual harassment victim, Mbatha co-founded the Women’s Comfort Corner Foundation dedicated to raising issues about violence against women and justice issues.
“Women’s Comfort Corner Foundation is a home, a sanctuary and a haven for all women and children who have suffered abuse. We give hope to women and children who have lost hope through Wings of Hope Counselling Centre,” she said.
“We aim to empower communities especially women and children to effectively mobilise access to justice and to challenge prevailing myths, stereotypes and practices relating to sexual violence, and offer training in income generating projects while fundraising school fees for orphans and the vulnerable children in Harare and Bulawayo.
“Our work and activism has focused on issues related to gender equality, gender-based violence, HIV and AIDS, human rights, and social justice.”
Mbatha has worked in the field of development and gender equality for over 15 years and is currently the board member and chairperson of the International Alliance of Women heading the Commission on the Elimination of Violence against Women.
In her work to liberate the girl child and protect the vulnerable in different communities, she also co-founded Wings of Hope Counselling Centre where victims of violence are offered counselling.
She uses her personal tragedy to shed light on domestic violence and workplace violence nationwide, sending a strong message about the importance of support for the victims and survivors in the wake of a violent tragedy.
Mbatha has documented and conducted advocacy on domestic violence and sexual violence in various workshops globally and her work on violence against women and girls has been selected on international platforms and valued across Africa, Europe and Asia.
“I undertook the prevention of mother-to-child transmission research which was selected for presentation at the XVI International Aids Conference held in Toronto, Canada 13 – 18 August 2006,” she said.
“My other research on sexual harassment in the workplace was selected at the XVII International AIDS Conference in Mexico City in 2008 while the other one on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault was selected for presentation at the 5th International Aids Conference on HIV Pathogenesis, Treatment and Prevention, which was held in Cape Town.”
This year since January, the human rights warrior has assisted 43 women with maintenance issues, 22 victims of domestic violence and 11 survivors of rape. She is also helping a total of 387 children in Epworth to access birth certificates.
“We work hand in hand with the National Prosecuting Office (NPA) and l remember there is one particular case a Magistrate at Rotten Row sentenced the rapist to community service and the parents of the victim approached our organisation and we in turn lodged a complaint with the NPA who appealed in the High Court,” Mbatha said.
“The accused did not even bother to do community service and I personally pointed him to the police and he was arrested. The appeal lodged by the NPA at our instance at the High Court was successful.”
Fighting side by side with those vulnerable to Injustice in the community, she finally managed to study law with the Central Law Training, Glasgow in Scotland specialising in criminal litigation.
“Today I would like to say to women who find themselves in compromising situations, you are not alone. I am a survivor of sexual harassment too and I continue to use my experience with traumatic grief to improve the lives of others through advocacy, counselling and supportive outreach,” Mbatha said.
“I continue to educate myself about the challenges faced by sexual violence survivors and those who need help to improve their livelihoods in an effort to also contribute towards their well being, through writing, facilitation, outreach activities and advocacy.
“As a female leader I have faced a lot of challenges from male counterparts.
“As much as we have made strides in addressing gender issues, most men don’t see female leaders as equal. In some instances you don’t get the help you require simply because you are female but we remain relentless and persistent in this regard.”
Mbatha added that ever since she incorporated boys and men into the group to fight sexual violence as one, men are also opening up about sexual violence.
“It is interesting that men are now reporting rape to our organisation and was pleasantly surprised when I got a call from a male teacher in Goromonzi requesting sanitary pads for the girl child. It shows that we are achieving something,” she said.
She emphasised how the support from close family members and friends can help people overcome anything, adding that as a wife, mother, sister, daughter and aunt, her family is her pillar of strength through trying times.