Currently the Chairperson of the Gays and Lesbians Association of Zimbabwe (GALZ) and Coordinator of the Zimbabwean chapter of the International Community of Women Living with HIV & AIDS (ICW-Zimbabwe). In February feminist activist Martha Tholanah was awarded the David Kato Vision & Voice Award for 2015. The award recognises and supports the work of leaders who uphold the rights and dignity of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people around the world.
Throughout her life in activism, Tholanah has faced social and political challenges to her work, both as a woman living openly with HIV and as a defender of the rights of people who identify as (LGBTI). We recently had the opportunity to have an interview with her.
Her Zimbabwe (HZ) : When did you start working with GALZ and why?
Martha Tholanah (MT): In January 2003, I took on the position of Programme Manager for Health with the local LGBTI community. I had first learnt of the pitfalls of excluding sectors of the community in programming when I worked with the Health Ministry in medical rehabilitation. This opened my eyes to the diversity of underserved individuals and communities that exist locally .
HZ: How does the health programme at GALZ work?
MT: The work includes provision of information on all health issues; counselling for the LGBTI community, their families and friends and raising awareness among various service providers and policymakers on issues that specifically affect the LGBTI community.
HZ: How does the environment outside GALZ receive your expertise?
MT: Some people and institutions and movements are receptive and work very well together with GALZ, and also include GALZ in their programmes and activities. However, there are some that are very hostile, homophobic, and will totally ignore addressing any issues that are to do with the LGBTI community.
HZ: You were charged for running an unregistered organisation in 2013, but then acquitted in 2014 What led to this situation?
MT: The police raided the GALZ offices; their warrant of arrest stated that there were drugs and pornographic material at our offices. However, upon searching the premises and examining literature and computers, it was evident that there was neither. During questioning, the police then asked for a Private Voluntary Organisation (PVO) registration certificate, but GALZ is a universitas [NGOs in Zimbabwe can register as non-profit making or charity organisations, trusts and common law universitas] and I told them as much.
But they insisted that GALZ had to be registered as a PVO, and then raised a charge against me as representative of GALZ for running an ‘illegal‘ organisation by virtue of the fact that we did not have PVO registration. The court, however, dismissed the charges stating that GALZ was under no obligation to register as a PVO, as it was exempted from doing so by the PVO Act itself.
HZ: How did the court case affect your operations?
MT: Members were fearful of using the offices, and there were a few disruptions when police and youth militia would come to the offices. However, work with communities, partners, service providers and policymakers continued without much disruption.
HZ: Over the years, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have been prone to office raids and state interference. How hard is it for you to continue working in such an environment?
MT: An office provides a central place for administrative and logistical support, so when raids and state interference happen, this support is difficult to provide away from the central point . However, the programme work continues, even though one has to be continuously cautious due to some individuals who take it upon themselves to act out state-instigated homophobia, which is many times promoted by some media houses.
HZ: Considering that you are not the first organisation to face such charges, what are your perceptions of the relationship between civil society, law enforcements agents and the judiciary?
MT: The harassment of civil society organisations is a waste of resources at the expense of developmental issues. The state seems to be deliberately antagonistic towards many civil society organisations; in the end, this results in some civil society actors not tackling critical issues even where they see that the population’s rights are violated.
HZ: What can be done to improve the relationship?
MT: The state actors that act out on the perceived hate of people’s being and civil society’s work and programmes should make themselves conversant with the laws of the country, including the constitution. State actors should be receptive to the fact that there has to be a voice for the voiceless. Civil society is capable of also finding ways to do its work and continuing to be an advocate for justice, and not avoiding the critical issues.
HZ: In 2003, at a time when HIV infection rates were at some of their highest in Zimbabwe, you discovered that you had the virus. What was your reaction to that?
MT: I had been suspicious for two years, because I had been diagnosed with pneumonia three times in 18 months and had lost weight. I was supposed to start work at GALZ on the 6th of January. So on the 3rd of January, I made a decision to go and get tested before starting my new job. My would-be employers did not ask me to do that. It was a mixture of different emotions. At first, I was a relief for me to know what the issue was with my health. But I was also disappointed and angry with myself as I blamed my self for getting infected. I told myself I should have known better and prevented myself from getting infected. I was also anxious about people’s reactions. But most of all, I was confused about whether to end my life or not.
HZ: How did your family, friends, colleagues react to the news?
MT: My brothers and sisters and their spouses were supportive. I lost some friends, and some remained steadfast and did not judge me. A few work colleagues thought I should be fired, but the management assured me of its support. In fact, on the day I was meant to start work I went and told them that I could not take the job. We discussed the issue and I told them about my status, and they reassured me that I could go ahead and start work because they believed my condition would not affect my productivity. This gave me hope as it showed that some people believed I had a future, despite my condition.
HZ: You were married at the time. How did your husband react to the news?
MT: I told my husband about my results and encouraged him to get tested too. But he suddenly became abusive and angry that I had gone for testing without his knowledge. He said AIDS didn’t exist and it was something invented by white people and that I had been brainwashed. Soon after that, I also discovered that I was pregnant; he did not want me to keep the pregnancy. I suspected the beating was a way to make me have a miscarriage. Eventually, I left my matrimonial home and I haven’t heard from him since.
HZ: When and why did you decide to share your HIV status with the public?
MT: After my child had tested negative at 18 months, and I had regained my health and strength in 2004, I went public because I had been under a lot of pressure to terminate the pregnancy by many of the healthcare professionals that attended to me in the early stages, and also by my partner who was angry with me for taking the test in the first place. Opening up was a way to say thank you to all those who had assisted me during those hard times. I had friends and family abroad who committed their finances to provide medication for me and food for my baby, since I was not breast feeding. I also thought that by coming out in the open, I would also influence other women to take charge of their health and lives, especially those living with HIV and AIDS.
Main photograph is from www.wag.org.zw