The University Record, November 12, 1997
By Jane R. Elgass
An eye-opening experience with human rights while working in a legal aid office in Zimbabwe in 1988 started Virginia Chitanda on an international journey that culminated earlier this fall with her appointment as director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center (SAPAC).
Chitanda took the job after completing her legal training at the University of Zambia, the University of Zimbabwe and the University of Manitoba. Her experiences there taught her "how much work there was to be done to protect the rights of citizens in general, but women in particular. The system had mechanisms in place capable of protecting men, but none for women because of historical legislative biases."
For example, Chitanda explains, a woman was never able to attain "adult status" because everything she might want to do had to have the consent of a male. This was a legacy of the colonial era. If a woman was not married, divorced or had left her father's house and saved money to purchase a home, she could not do so without the consent of a male. However, she could purchase a home in an infant son's name.
"This was a glaringly obvious problem, a big step for me," Chitanda says.
Chitanda's office was staffed largely by women, and led by one of the first women law school graduates in Zimbabwe. Under her mentorship, Chitanda became involved in the Women and the Law in Southern Africa Research Project, which examined pieces of legislation in six countries that in and of themselves were barriers to the advancement, independence and freedom of women. The efforts resulted in significant, positive changes in the status of women with regard to equal pay, maternity benefits and inheritance laws.
This work "furthered my understanding of how tightly knit the system was in disempowering women and making sure they stayed at a lower level," Chitanda states.
From there she moved to the Department of Public Prosecution where she handled a great many cases involving sexual abuse, child molestation and domestic violence. In her position from the prosecutor's side of the bench, Chitanda felt constrained, "not able to do things that could result in real justice. I could not be involved with the real problem."
When she took the job in 1991, some of the cases she was assigned dated back to 1984. "Ultimately, the guilty went free," she says. "I felt that justice was not served, but I couldn't do anything about it and couldn't reconcile myself to this," and she dropped prosecuting.
Chitanda then became more heavily involved in the research project and did private consulting on issues of violence and sexual assault and more broadly on women's rights and human rights.
She moved to Canada in 1993 where she studied for a master's degree in international human rights law in Manitoba. She then worked for the Ontario Advocacy Commission, which provided services to vulnerable people, those who are incapable of communicating their wishes, for whatever reason.
In 1995, she initially volunteered with the Sexual Assault Center in London, Ontario, and was appointed public education and outreach coordinator. Her work involved projects with various communities of new Canadians, addressing legislative structures and education about human rights and domestic abuse.
She comes to the U-M from the University of Western Ontario, where she was the equity services officer. She handled cases and offered mediation related to sexual harassment and assault, date and acquaintance violence and race relations, as well as heading up university safety efforts.
Chitanda's interests merged with issues in this post, where she was dealing with issues of climate and culture. "We create a train, but the cars don't fit on the track," Chitanda explains. "The question is how to keep it on track, and this made me realize that education is the key to addressing these issues."
Chitanda was attracted to the U-M post because "it put all my experiences together, from my legal training, to project development, to education, to advancing the human rights cause of women."
"My philosophy is that we should not only be reactive. Rather we should be more proactive by doing more education. This way everyone in the University community can attain their goals. Staff and faculty can have meaningful careers and students can excel in their studies in a safe and respectful environment."
The university setting is important to Chitanda, who notes that in such a setting, "you are dealing with people in the learning stages of their lives. They can leave here with things that will help them create a better tomorrow. The university provides an environment in which discovery is part of everyone's life, there is room to grow, and people are more open to analysis and challenging the status quo."