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Angry enough to make change - Interview with Martha Tholanah
Upenyu Makoni-Muchemwa,
October 11, 2010

Read Inside / Out with Martha Tholanah

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Martha TholanahMartha 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.

What 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. Listen

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 drugs.

Would 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 HIV?

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 problematic.

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. Listen

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. Listen

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 of issues.

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. Listen

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?

Do you 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 of this?

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?

What 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.

What is your opinion of this sudden new drive for male circumcision?

Because I'm 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 now work?

With the decrease in funding to fight HIV in Africa, what problems do you foresee?

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. Listen

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