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enough to make change - Interview with Martha Tholanah
October 11, 2010
Inside / Out with Martha Tholanah
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Tholanah is a social justice activist with a particular interest
in the issues that affect the marginalized members of society including
women, children and the disabled. In 2004 after being diagnosed
with HIV, she took a bold step and made her status public. Of her
positive attitude towards HIV she says "I take it to be a
chronic manageable condition, rather than a life-threatening disease."
Today, she is living strong and working on advocacy issues related
to access to treatment for people living with HIV/AIDS and sexual
and reproductive rights for all women.
is your opinion of the healthcare industry's attitude towards
people living with HIV?
Now when I go to the hospital, I feel like a commodity. [Health
professionals] treat us like, as long as you get your ARVs, as long
as your CD4 count is fine then you are ok. I think that is very
unfair on a lot of people living with HIV. We are more than the
HIV diagnosis; we are more than a CD4 count.
A CD4 count being low
very does not mean that everything is fine, there are a lot of other
issues that come up. There is a lot research that is going on. And
where I find that we are slacking is with the new medicines that
are coming up - we are not quick enough to move people to the new
you say that the attitude of the medical fraternity towards the
disease, looking at it from a textbook point of view as opposed
to treating it holistically, has interfered with the fight against
I agree with
you. It took some time for the medical fraternity to react. Many
people after being diagnosed and told that they had 6 months to
live would find that they survived for longer than three years.
One of the issues that I see is that a pap smear is not routinely
offered to women living with HIV.
Sitting in the
family care clinic at Parirenyatwa, you look around at people and
you see that they are so desperate to get their ARVs, so they have
to sit there quietly and not ruffle any feathers. But I find this
It seems that
civil society, as well, has gone quiet around treatment literacy.
There are news issues coming up that we are not even advocating.
In 2004/2005 the issue was about getting the government to provide
ARVs, but when that was achieved, they became relaxed. But it's
not the end.
Right now I've
been engaging with activists in India, who are protesting against
trade agreements between India and the European Union related to
generic drugs. African
people have really relied on India for affordable medicines, but
we are not supporting the activist.
Issues of funding
as well we do not engage. There is no real activism that is happening
in Zimbabwe. Civil society is competing so much within itself, it's
a plus for the government, and because we are so weak, we cannot
make a change. I really want to see us back to where we are on top
It seems like
when civil society organisations decided to professionalise and
they stopped advocating on issues. What has taken us backwards is
when we are told in meetings, when we raise an issue, "oh
you are just being emotional". I'm saying that there
is nothing wrong with being emotional. What is so shameful about
that? I think people living with HIV and civil society should get
to that level of being emotional. When we were emotional we got
things done, we were angry enough and we made things change.
I think civil society
has gone to sleep in terms HIV. We point a lot of fingers at NAC,
but as civil society organisations, whom are we reporting to?
think we need to set up a framework for civil society? Early this
year the government talked about civil society organisations registering
with them in order for them to know what work was being done in
communities, as opposed to working blindly. What is your opinion
That I agree
with, although I know it's a point of [contention] with a
lot of civil society organisations. What may be difficult is the
methodology and how its used, and I think civil society organisations
are afraid of being victimised. The government has a responsibility,
and these organisations say they are complementing the government,
so what are they complementing if the government doesn't know
where it's being helped?
issues are you currently working on?
One of the
issues is around sexual and reproductive health. The campaigns that
are there are looking at us as baby making machines. I think it
should be more holistic that just a woman giving birth. If you go
into any of the hospitals there are women dying of cancer. It's
scary. And there is no screening, there is nothing. I'm looking
more at working towards a health system that delivers.
is your opinion of this sudden new drive for male circumcision?
a community board advisor I've been reading a lot. There are
too many conflicting studies, although there are some studies that
get pushed to the forefront. This is where I get conflicted and
say why have we not been comparing the different studies that have
come out with different results. There is an argument that male
circumcision is responsible for the lower infection rates of in
Moslem communities, but that is tied to certain ways of behaving.
But this medical circumcision is not tied to that, so how can it
the decrease in funding to fight HIV in Africa, what problems do
People may drop
out of the system and not get ARVs and develop resistance. What
is the scariest is that Zimbabwe was innovative in acquiring the
funding for HIV, but once some funding started trickling in, then
we relaxed. That's a disaster because it's not sustainable.
This is why I think that money from VAT should go directly into
the health system.
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