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Interview with Tendayi Westerhof, Zimbabwean HIV/AIDS activist and educator
Upenyu Makoni-Muchemwa,
April 01, 2010

Read Inside / Out with Tendayi Westerhof

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Tendayi WesterhofThough 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.
Sources: Zimbo Jam, The Southern Times

I have 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.

Would you say that gender inequality is something that is inherent in African culture?
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. Listen

What prompted you to start your organisation Public Personalities Against HIV/AIDS?
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.

What 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.

What 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. Listen

How 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. Listen

What 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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Audio File

  • Gender inequality
    Language: English
    Duration: 36sec
    Date: April 01, 2010
    File Type: MP3
    Size: 564KB

  • Intergenerational sex
    Language: English
    Duration: 18sec
    Date: April 01, 2010
    File Type: MP3
    Size: 283KB

  • HIV education
    Language: English
    Duration: 29sec
    Date: March 18, 2010
    File Type: MP3
    Size: 458KB

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