Fifa accused of ‘silence’ over Zifa sexual harassment claims

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The Zimbabwe Football Association (Zifa) and Fifa have been accused of “going silent” over allegations that female referees were sexually harassed by Zifa officials.

The allegations – made against Zifa’s referees committee secretary general, Obert Zhoya, and its chairman, Bryton Malandule – were first reported by local media in September 2020 before two of the alleged victims, both referees, officially registered their complaints with the Zifa board.

The allegations were also sent to Fifa, the global game’s governing body, the Confederation of African Football (Caf), and the Council of Southern Africa Football Associations (Cosafa). It was not until the alleged victims reported the claims to police, in December 2021, that a formal investigation was launched.

One of the alleged victims, who did not want to be named, told the Guardian that she had not officiated since making the complaints and felt “emotionally drained” by the whole experience.

“Zifa is a huge disappointment,” she said. “I’ve told myself I can never rely on them. I had high hopes that Fifa would intervene and fight to defend us female referees but they let me down as well. My question is why would Fifa go silent? I’m not saying they have to rush and make my case a first priority but at least show me that you’re keen to assist me.”

One alleged victim said she had been “humiliated, intimidated and degraded” by Zhoya, claiming she had received a series of WhatsApp messages from him asking for her to spend the night with him in a hotel.

“I would like to put on record that he had been making these unwelcome sexual advances since September 2019,” she wrote in a letter to Zifa. “The allegations I make herein are backed by evidence in the form of phone call voice recordings. I then got the courage from the evidence I had, and learning that I’m not the only one [who] was subject to this harassment.

“I have been on the Zifa [referees] panel since 2019, I’m 30 years old. I expected to be treated with respect, not like a lady of the night. I however request you to look into the matter and possibly address the issue and in the process protect me and my fellow female referees who are suffering silently.”

Another official accused Malandule, who is also a member of the Zifa board, of making “sexual advances” towards her in March 2019.

Contacted by the Guardian, Malandule said: “I am sure that you appreciate that when issues are before judicial bodies, one cannot comment as per the sub judice rule.” Zhoya had not responded to the Guardian’s request for comment at the time of publication.

Another experienced referee claimed she has been “frozen out” of officiating at matches for offering support to alleged victims. She claimed several more officials are too afraid to report abuse claims because of the way the cases have been handled.

She said: “These reports were made immediately when the stories came out and we have gone more than a year without anything being done or any feedback. I think Fifa should have kept in touch with the victims to reassure them that they are still working on it. By going quiet, it seems like it is a minor issue. The girls feel very, very bitter about their experiences.”

In November, the entire Zifa board was suspended by the Zimbabwe government’s sports and recreation commission (SRC) over “several incidents of gross incompetence” that the SRC described as “contrary to the national interest”. As well as alleged mismanagement and lack of accountability in the use of public funds, it cited the allegations of sexual harassment of female referees.

Fifa disapproves of governmental interference in the running of member associations. It warned Zimbabwe that it could be banned from the Africa Cup of Nations unless the elected FA was restored by 3 January 2022 – a threat that failed to materialise. “There are clear rules in the Fifa statutes that prohibit any undue third-party interference in the affairs of any Fifa member association,” a Fifa spokesperson said.