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with Tendayi Westerhof, Zimbabwean HIV/AIDS activist and educator
April 01, 2010
Inside / Out with Tendayi Westerhof
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she does not consider herself a controversial figure, Tendayi Westerhof
challenged many people's stereotypes in 2003 when she publicly announced
that she is HIV positive. Since then she has written two books,
Unlucky in Love published in 2005, followed by Dear Cousin published
in 2007. She also established a trust Public Personalities against
AIDS, which seeks to influence behaviour change among Zimbabweans.
read that your father felt that education was something for boys,
how has his belief shaped who you are today?
If it weren't for my mother, who kept pushing that I should
go to school, my life would have been a disaster. If a girl child
is not educated, she becomes less empowered. A lack of education
also leads to ignorance of a lot of things in life. I'm happy
that at least my mother was bold enough to fight for me to be educated.
She sacrificed whatever she made selling vegetables to make sure
that I went to school.
you say that gender inequality is something that is inherent in
It's there, and it's quite pronounced, we have a long
way to go to address gender. It starts when children are young:
girls are made to play with dolls and boys play with cars and guns.
We see the gender power relations from a young age. So gender is
everywhere, even in the professional world, you discover that people
have more respect for a male CEO than a female CEO. Yet we know
that women are very hard workers, they can deliver and they're
professional. I'm grateful to women gender activists who have
made inroads in addressing those inequalities. Now we have a national
gender policy and a lot of these NGOs have their own gender policies
in the work place.
prompted you to start your organisation Public Personalities Against
It was this issue of having role models who can have an impact in
the society in which they live. Public personalities are seen as
role models. These people are quite influential, people want to
emulate their lifestyle, and they listen to the things that they
say. Public personalities can influence thinking and ideas. I had
a strong feeling that public personalities can influence behaviour
change as far as HIV/AIDS is concerned.
was the response of Zimbabwean public personalities to your work?
The response was mixed. But eventually it became very good. In the
past we had not seen any high profile people in Zimbabwe coming
out to say they are HIV positive. Myself, Tendayi, coming from the
modelling world, people had their own perceptions of models. That
they are promiscuous. The background of where I was coming from,
who my former husband was, people could not believe that I could
come out and say that I was HIV positive. HIV has always been associated
with someone who is poor and miserable, who is desperate. That is
why there were mixed reactions when I announced that I had HIV because
I did not fall into that social sector.
do you feel are your successes as an HIV activist?
I do sessions with young people where I talk to them. They ask me
a lot of questions about how I am living with HIV. I find that a
few weeks down the line they come to me and say thank you Mrs. Westerhof,
you have helped me cope with my life.
You know HIV
affects mostly young women. There is this issue of intergenerational
sex, and old men don't use condoms. It doesn't matter
what sort of relationship you're in, they don't use
condoms. I have managed to empower these women on how they can take
care of their sexual reproductive health and protect them from HIV.
I try to teach them to value who they are, that life is not about
dating these sugar daddies who have money. I want to teach them
that they can make it in life. They can create wealth for themselves
without having to put their health at risk. Education comes first.
do you feel about adult HIV education?
We have a lot of adults in the towns . . . I'm talking about
those people who are working. As far as I'm concerned, they
are really not being reached by the information on HIV/AIDS. We
have the problem of the small house syndrome and we have to look
at who is involved in this. And you find that it is educated, well
to do people with money and material things that can afford to have
more than one girlfriend or boyfriend. Our programmes are not really
going to the root of the problem. For the rural folk, yes there
are programmes going on, but its not enough. Everyday we are getting
people infected with HIV and it's taking a toll on our population.
I feel that a lot still needs to be done. Even though Zimbabwe is
experiencing a decline in HIV prevalence, we shouldn't relax.
programmes are you currently running?
I have started winter and summer schools for executive working women
and professionals. These include personal assistants and secretaries.
I come from a modelling background so I teach them about grooming
and reproductive health. I have special programmes for the youth;
these are in churches where I work with faith-based organisations.
I also teach pastors and church leaders about HIV. I'm also
involved in the advocacy for microbicides. They are still in clinical
trial and nothing is available on the market. I travel a lot sharing
my experiences. I'm involved in advocacy at a global level.
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