Last year we had an interview with Martha Tholanah, where we talked about her work, her life and activism. After the announcement that she was the third recipient of the prestigious Elizabeth Taylor Human Rights Award, we thought another one on one, with her was not a bad idea. This time we spoke to her as the first black woman to have her work honoured by the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation. This all happened at the just ended International AIDS Conference 2016 held in Durban. Martha has become one of the most recognisable and influential advocates for human rights in Zimbabwe, and all of southern Africa. She is known for leading in the fight for the rights of LGBTI communities and for people living with HIV/AIDS. Even with more accolades to her name, she had not changed a bit, it was still the same humble, composed Martha we met a year ago.
This article is the edited version of the interview, for full clip listen listen here.
Tendai Changamire(TC): Can you tell us about the AIDS conference in Durban, what it was about and what activities you engaged in?
Martha Tholanah (MT): The International AIDS conference in Durban was very special in that it came to Durban 16 years later after 2000. The first one in Durban was in 2000 and this is the second time. In 2000, we remember that South Africa was in denial from its leadership around HIV and treatment was not even available, and the language then was that taking ARVs for people in Africa was going to be impossible.16 years later, there has been a lot of advances, where 17 million people are on ARVs and a lot of those people are in Africa. We have seen that yes we can tell the time unlike what we were being told back then and we have a lot of long term survivors. A lot of researches have since been done and new knowledge is being generated to continuously improve what we know, care and treatment and also prevention strategies. One of the biggest strides that has been made is around Mother to Child transmissions which some countries are actually now at zero transmission from Mother to Child. We know that a lot things can be achievable if we do the right thing and if we use the knowledge that has been generated.
I think there were 16 pre-conferences before the main conference, and I had the priviledge to attend two, and deliberately, Martha being Martha, I went for the women pre-conferences. The ‘Women Now’ 2016 conference, held over 3 days, looks at black women and women of African descent and how we are impacted differently by HIV. This was the first of its kind. This kind of conversation has never been done before. There was a lot of solidarity building and a lot looking at those issues which would not normally be talked about. When we look at research in HIV, when it started it seems a lot of strategies were designed by men for men. When HIV started and the hype around it being a condition that would affect gay men the focus then was on gay men, but when we look at African women, a lot of them have acquired HIV through heterosexual sex. These needed to be talked about and to talk specifically about our vulnerabilities in an environment that doesn’t minimise any of the experiences that we have as black women. It was also feeding into the main conference to actually stage how we experience the conference, how we experience the research studies as participants, how we want to be engage and how it will make a difference for us in the way of our engagement
The main conference was very big and overwhelming. I was a rapporteur for the Community and Leadership sector. We had to get a feel of what was happening in all tracks and how communities were experiencing the kind of presentations being made. Being a rapporteur I need to balance and get a feel from different area which works with the strategy ‘leave noone behind’. I went into session on adolescence and young people, key populations, feminist perspectives on criminalisation of HIV and in another session on scientific research. In many ways what we heard from my team is that yes science and research are important but a lot of these strategies and programming cannot happen without communities. There is so much we know now. The difference with 2000 that we noted is people were dying of AIDS, but today are people not dying? People are still dying in large numbers and it’s not acceptable. I think 1,1 million people died of AIDS in 2015, and we said with what we know now and the resources we have, it should be a shame on the whole world to have so many deaths because of AIDS. There should be no death because of AIDS, but then the difference now is people are dying very quietly so people think the problem has been resolved. There is some complacency that has encroached. In 2000 the difference was that civil society were in the lead in the response to HIV. But if we look at the current situation, for example in Zimbabwe we started having treatment in 2004, I think a lot of activists have relaxed since then. Treatment literacy has gone down and this was something that civil society, activists and advocacy, were doing but not so much now. In Zimbabwe, probably one of the things is resources. The other issue is around our political environment which makes it difficult for people to go into the communities. In many ways thats how I have a feel to say, coming from the conference, there is so much that we know but we really need to not get out of doing business as usual and be really radical the way we were in 2000 when we got the treatment on the platform.
TC: Martha let’s talk about the award. Elizabeth Taylor Human rights award that you received at the just ended Aids conference in Durban. You are the third person to receive this award. The only other people to receive this award are only medical doctors who were involved in AIDS research. How did you feel when your name was called out? What was the experience like?
MT: Receiving the award took me by surprise. I was overwhelmed but really humbled because this was a conference that had 18.000 people from across the whole world. From when it started I am the first women to receive this award. I was highly emotional as well and also happy to see a lot of people in the auditorium cheering and to feel that okay there is someone who notices because when I am doing the work its like just another day that I am doing my work. Most of the work I do is on a voluntary basis and I never knew that someone would notice. So it was really overwhelming and also getting all the messages of congratulations and support and saying that you deserved it. I was thinking really do you ask people why are you saying I deserved it? What really is special is that I have done What other people have not done. I am still overwhelmed right now. It took me three days to respond to all my WhatsApp messages and I haven’t finished with my Facebook and LinkedIn messages. When I went into AIDS 2016, I must say I was really at that point of fatigue and burn out. But this is energising. Also it’s a tribute to all the people, particularly the most vulnerable people whom a lot of people take no second look at. The orphans I have been working with, the LGBTI community, those parents of people who maybe gay and lesbian who have found it difficult but have managed to have a conversation in a way to say yes I don’t understand what my child is but I love them as they are. So in many ways those moments have been very humbling to me as a mother and as a grandmother now and also thinking to the future to say where do we go. So in many ways this ensures that we do not stop. Accepting this award was just as well recommitting myself to continue to do the work.
TC: Just after you received the award you posted on your Facebook a statement from Peter Piot that we assume you deeply agree with. The statement reads, “Not time for self-congratulations when 20million people are in need of treatment and there are 2000 new infections per day” . It seems you are more concerned about progress in your area of work than you are about your individual awards. Since this is not your first time receiving an award, we would like to know if any of these awards play any role in motivating you?
MT: Yes, highly motivating. And also listening to a lot of people. It was Peter Piot and there was Charlize Theron. You think they are stars they are not human but being in the same space as them and spending some time we them and realising she is human and she is concerned about this. You know sometimes we concern ourselves about being politically correct and when I quoted Peter Piot and Charlize Theron to say that for us to be able to conquer this disease there is a disease that is in our minds and hearts that we need to first cure and we need to look within. And that was very powerful for me to say look within. Because for me as a woman living with HIV I’m coming from a point when I had given up, at a time when there was no treatment and you could see push back from a lot of people. But there were individuals who helped me reclaim my life and my health and such that I believed that HIV was not going to defeat me. So in many ways those push backs, I realised this is what Peter Piot and Charlize Theron were talking about. But also that there are so many resources coming in, so much knowledge coming in, and I think this is where Peter Piot was saying we do have the resources, we know what’s to be done so lets do it. Let’s make sure that the money works were its supposed to work.
TC: Zimbabwe now has the mandate to lead a campaign on preventing new infections inline with the global target to an HIV and AIDS free generation by 2030. How do you view this responsibility and what kind of actions should be taken to achieve this goal?
MT: I think it was a very proud moment for Zimbabwe to get that leadership role in prevention strategies and I think communities should be at the centre. When I talk of communities, I keep thinking of [the slogan] ‘Leave none behind’. There are some communities like the LGBTI communities that are considered immoral or taboo to talk about but if we are saying ‘Leave none behind’ and if we look at the theme of the AIDS conference ‘Access Equity rights now,’ really we should go beyond those personal prejudices. I think in many ways it is about looking at the community and making sure we live none behind. We do not criminalise certain people, they are there you can’t away with them, you can’t legislate them away. Legislative framework needs to be supportive of the health system so that people are able to respond comprehensively. Because a lot of times people who are healthcare workers and other people who are working in the community just won’t do anything about sex workers, gays, lesbians and trans[gender] because they are so scared because of the environment. But then when they are so scared and not have anything to do with these key populations what does this mean for us? I have committed myself to mentoring girls and young women, particularly those who are born with HIV or infected at a young age, mentoring them into leadership role to take up advocacy roles. I think it is always important to be able to continue making an effective difference so that the young people are also heard. We also need to remember that we need to work with the healthcare system because we depend on it. It needs to be funded. We need local resources to fund the healthcare system and CSOs also need to be funded. It seems right now that a lot of people continue to do work without funding but we do need the funding. We need the national budget to be able to allocate adequate resources for the responses to health.
TC: It seems clear that the role of civil society is important to achieve this goal. During our interview last year you highlighted your struggles with the state during your term as chairperson of GALZ. Since then, has the relationship between civil society and the state transformed?
MT: I wouldn’t say that it has changed. It’s a difficult question to answer. Yes there is intimidation, sometimes the intimidation is not so obvious but it still is there. Sometimes it is very open. But then the thing is the work is still going on and that is something that I appreciate even if you still do it in fear. The worry is that with the current environment you are driving the communities that should be reached away. I think civil society has always been known for pushing and they need to continue pushing for that engagement and also negotiating the space because all we are doing is looking at that goal of getting to zero. And this is something that the government is involved in and all we are doing is complementing the government so that at the end of the day they won’t be saying such and such individual brought us to 9090 target but it will be Zimbabwe got to 9090 or Zimbabwe got to zero or Zimbabwe left none behind. It’s a continuous negotiation of the space that is not always easy. At the end of the day some people will also have to take risk and make sure that those different groups are reached
TC: We know that a big part of your activism has been hugely influenced by your life experiences. Your life has been for fighting others to overcome the stigma and discrimination in their lives so that they can find self-love and acceptance too. Having been a woman living openly with HIV and AIDS, have the challenges associated with that changed over the years.
MT: With some people they have changed, with some people they haven’t. There are someone people who are not comfortable when you talk about your HIV. For me it is now the same, at a funeral when other are saying I need my BP medicine I am saying I need my HIV medicine. I think I have become more aware of when I am in a group and a lot of times I am consciously saying it just to confront people with the fact that it is there. That way of confrontation is also a way of saying maybe it teaches someone around also getting to know their status, and also stopping stigmatising others if they are doing that, and also in a way maybe it opens up conversations to say how do you cope and maybe those conversations can help someone else.
TC: The Aspire trial raised hopes, especially in young women, that they could be a possible HIV prevention remedy they have control over. Do you think this could make a significant contribution to young women’s lives?
MT: Yes I agree it can make a significant contribution and it has already made a significant contribution in that getting this far in the research itself is a huge milestone. I look at myself when I was young woman, HIV was not a worry. But my worries would be around pregnancy and other STIs. How many pale would I then be able to go to cover me for all those. I like the ring for the fact that you can have it and keep it in place for a month. It may continuously provide protection. You do not feel it, your partner won’t feel it when you are having intercourse. That’s power in itself. We are looking at can that protection be widened and we are hoping that the scientist will be able to continuously speak to the young people about what they would want the ring to cover.
TC: So lastly whats next? What are the projects you are working on now or what projects are you intending to engage in?
MT: What I will continue with is the mentoring of girls and young women. They need to advocate they need to be given the space. They need to be able to express themselves, and just give them training and also for them to gain confidence. I am happy so far with the few, they were really busy at the conference in Durban and they are sought after speakers and facilitators of workshops. So to me that’s something that works. So definitely this is work that I want to continue, and also have them start mentoring others at this early age. I turn 52 this year, and I look at the age gap and I am really conscious that it’s a barrier when talking to young women. So how do you continuously looking at bridging that gap and making sure that they are always in a comfortable space to be able to speak for themselves, to be able to go forward and advocate for themselves and go into spaces that look so intimidating. Why particularly girls and young women? Its because sometimes we go into these high level meetings and panels, and you find that sometimes they are dominated by men. Men talking about women’s issues. So if we just watch and not train young women coming up then that narrative is going to continue. The other thing is to continuously support the vulnerable young children. There are a lot of young people with potential who are failing to get into school. One of the things I am starting to do, partnering with other individuals is facilitating that they get into school. It’s something that doesn’t take a lot of resources because it’s channeling money to pay directly to the school and that they have uniforms. When you are doing that as part of the community it empowers the children. I have seen someone getting into medical school who was reading with a candle in Zengeza. We need to be conscious as well about mental health issues that they affect women mostly. Because when a woman or a relative is affected by a mental health issue, it’s the woman who has the burden of caring for that person. It’s something that we are not talking about and seem to think it’s taboo to talk about. For me, that’s passion as well that for years it’s something that I have worked for but it doesn’t seem to be attractive to many people. But it’s something that i try to make sure that it’s a narrative in the work that I do.
Main Image: Martha Tholanah receiving her award from Elizabeth Taylor’s grandchildren, during the 2016 International AIDS Conference. Image taken from www.elizabethtayloraidsfoundation.org
Article written by Tendaishe ‘Tishe’ Changamire, a freelance writter passionate about gender, equality, politics and social development. She loves Africa and encourages Africans to own their narrative. Tishe is a hopeless food and book lover.