My experience with sexual harassment at the University of Zimbabwe Law Faculty…

Today I choose to write about my experiences with sexual harassment at the University of Zimbabwe Law School following a post by my friend that a number of junior lawyers are being exposed to sexual harassment within the legal fraternity. This cancer that is robbing the potential of so many girls and young women has to be uprooted.

Coming from St Theresa kwaBvekerwa and finding myself at the University of Zimbabwe as a first year law student was the best thing that ever happened to me, it was indeed a dream come true. All the injustices I had experienced as a child, a girl for that matter I was finally going to be empowered to deal with similar injustices. I was over the moon but not so fast this cindirella tale of me being at the University and studying and getting my degree flawlessly was yet to be challenged. I failed to get accommodation at the University and this was the beginning of most of my problems many of which I am not focusing on today in this article.  A month or so after starting school I saw a notice on the notice board asking me to go and see one of the senior staff members at the Law Faculty. I suddenly remembered that my sister had told me to see him when I had come to law school but I had not.

Upon entering his office he asked me if my sister had not told me about our relationship to which I told him I had been advised. He noted that when I had failed to secure accommodation I should have gone to see him and he would have sorted it out because with my heart condition I should have been given accommodation. Fast forward among other interactions he called for me again and I went to see him wherein he asked me if I was dating some senior law student as he had heard rumours to that effect. He went on to tell me how this senior student had come to the University without necessarily having the requisite points but because of some special entry and he mentioned something to the effect that, ‘ a headboy and a headmaster cannot fight for the same cake,’. I did not make anything out of it. I just thought it was a genuine question. Looking back I always say, ‘foolish me’, that should have been a red light but I never thought my ‘brother’ would cross that path.

One day as had become the norm that when he would not have seen me in a while he would put up a notice, he put up one and I went to see him. This time he informed me that he was going to UK and he asked if I was coming to the library the weekend to follow and I said yes I was. He asked me to see him me when I came. Saturday came and I went to see my ‘brother ‘in his office. He had a plastic bag full of groceries in his office which he handed to me and told me that since he would be away from the country for a while he thought I might get desperate. I was honestly overjoyed by my ‘brother’ s thoughtfulness. I found myself saying a prayer and thanking God for being the God of orphans and sending angels on earth to make provisions for his orphaned children. Back at home we said a prayer of thanksgiving with my sister.

‘Brother’ was to be away for some time. When he came back from UK he sent for me again. As soon as I entered his office he showed me insurance documents for several cars and houses which he owned. To be honest I was in my first year and I could not read anything into those documents he gave me, I did not fully appreciate what they really meant. I did not want to appear as a fool though to ‘brother’ so I did not expose my ignorance, I told myself after leaving his office I would surely google and know. He told me that if I worked hard I would also get properties for myself. He then gave me a bottle of perfume that he had bought for me, I was euphoric that finally I was for the first time in my life going to use perfume in a glass bottle not a can. Wow, me a village girl. What came afterwards baffled me. To my utter shock, horror and disbelief ‘brother’ had bought me red parachute panties. My mouth dried up, words could not come out, my throat failed me. I just found myself saying I can’t fit into them without holding the panties. He then asked me to try them going ahead to lock the office. I died and woke up in a split of a second. A million thoughts went through my mind, ‘what was going to happen to me’, ties  ‘what would I say’, ‘what had gotten into the mind of brother who was an angel sent from heaven’, ‘what had I done to call for this’, ‘maybe I smiled at him too much, maybe I showed him wrong signals, maybe I covertly agreed to all this without paying much attention,’ ‘so all this while that is how ‘brother’ looked at me, he was luring me’. I really could not believe what was happening, I then broke into tears, I really never saw this coming, I was so naïve thinking that he was genuine. I learnt from that day that things are not always as they seem. He then asked what was wrong and I said nothing but sobbed. He then said what would happen if people heard me crying. With my bottle of perfume, ‘yes with the bottle of perfume’ I left his office, left the panties on the desk and went.

imagesI could not control my tears and his secretary saw me, I told her what had happened and I also told the Registrar at that time. Nothing procedurally happened but from that day I knew never to go to his office, I knew I had to avoid him by all means possible and this included, ‘running away from him’ if he was walking in the direction I was going, I knew that I had to make sure I studied hard and passed well because I knew that if my paper was ever to pass through his hands needing calibration if I had not performed well he would fail me, I knew I would never study the course that he offered, ‘thank God it was optional’, now I will have to study it for my PHD. I was so sure I would never see ‘brother’ in the same light and that was the death of ‘brother’ in my life.

Poverty exposes one to so much abuse and violations. My dream of finishing Law school was in doldrums as I did not have money for fees. I was resolute I had to complete my law degree if ever I would be able to change our family narrative of being one of the poorest families amongst my relations. A lady assisted me with getting sewing skills and I started selling my wares, ponchos, children’s tracksuits and some clothing items. The money I made out of this business assisted me in my day to day needs but hyperinflation made it difficult for me to be able to raise both my fees and money for my busfare and upkeep whilst going to University. One of my high school teachers introduced me to a Professor within the Law Faculty highlighting my financial challenges. He told me to go and see him on a Friday. I went to his office and he gave me some chocolates from Netherlands and busfare that would last me the following week as I stayed in Chitungwiza with my little sister. He was to look and ask around at the University if there was some work I could do to cushion myself especially with regards transport and part fees payment. As a catholic believer those days that evening I said the rosary thanking God for being faithful and seeing me through it all. My dream of becoming a lawyer, the first one from my remote community was falling into place.

When he returned back to the University I went to see him to find out if he had good news for me. I had even dreamt of myself working and getting a paycheck at the end of the month in the waiting period to see him. He said because he had been away from the University he had not managed to speak to the responsible people. He tried to call one or two people to no avail. Again he handed me another box of chocolates which I gladly accepted and money which would last me more than a month for busfare. I openly praised God and shed a few tears because I was amazed at the kindness. When I was about to leave his office he asked me to go to his desk as he was on a wheelchair, close to him purporting that he wanted to show me something. Innocently I went and he put his hands on my shoulders and said he is sorry everything would work out well. Before I knew it he kissed me on the cheek. I did not say anything, I just walked out of his office and that was the last I went to see him. I only heard about him when he had passed on.

I knew then that finishing my law degree with any genuine and innocent assistance from any man was to never be a reality. These experiences and what I had gone through in my life before taught me to treat all men with so much suspicion because experience had taught me that I lived in a world with sex predators waiting to pounce on the innocent, powerless and poor. I told myself that indeed just as I had grown up being treated as a sexual object that narrative was real, I was a sex object. I did not even know where to report these cases and when I had told a friend about the chocolates I had received without saying the rest of the story she just said to me, ‘ be careful I hear that man loves women and has been involved with a number of students’. In the corridors I also started hearing about how ‘brother’ would date students who stayed at his house close to the Campus. In my mind I concluded that this was the order of the day. I knew then that I could never get any help. I also told myself that if I knew what was good for me I should shut my mouth if I really wanted that degree and indeed I kept it to myself but it killed me. This was the common truth for so many so who was I to talk about it. Years later when I spoke about it with senior authorities at the University, upon reflection that having this predator within the campus meant more and more girls were being exposed to his predatory tendencies, I was told about the difficulty of gathering the evidence considering the time that had lapsed and I knew I wanted to fight a lost battle.

Sexual harassment is linked to value systems that favor male authoritarianism and aggressiveness, and at the same time expect women to be subservient and passive.  This is the reason that has made sexual harassment be regarded as the norm.  There is generally a spirit of solidarity amongst man such that when you injure one, you injure all, so survivors of sexual harassment from my work experience regard reporting sexual harassment a futile exercise as it will only negatively impact on them as they are either fired from work or they fail to graduate from college. The hierarchical nature of the Universities and the patriarchal cultures of leadership creates various zones of vulnerability to sexual harassment especially in the students and junior employees. This often results in the difficulty of survivors of sexual harassment to voice their experiences due to pain, self-blame, humiliation, anger and confusion as society is quick to blame survivors for their experiences. These hierarchical relations seem to have neutralized a sexual contract in which some male academics and senior management consider it their right to demand for sex.

Now that I am older I will continue to talk about sexual harassment and how it impacts women because I have experienced it and would not want to see any other girl or woman experience it. Sexual harassment should be addressed if at all the playing field is ever to be levelled for women to reach their full potential.