When HIV and identity carry the same burden of discrimination it can be difficult to know where to start in trying to encourage acceptance.
In Zimbabwe’s homophobic culture human rights activist, Martha Tholanah has committed her life to fighting for the rights of women across all diversity. She acknowledges that serving the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Intersex (LGBTI) community can be dangerous. She insists that her aim is to get the job done.
“I just do things that have to be done. Even though a lot of times, unfortunately, you find yourself at risk in terms of safety and security,” shares Tholanah with a rueful laugh.
One of the main recommendations for Zimbabwe was to revise the 2006 laws criminalising homosexuality. This was by the United Nations Human Rights Zimbabwe from 2016’s Universal Periodic Review. The government’s refusal was not a surprise, but a reinforcement of President Robert Mugabe’s long time position against same-sex marriage.
With such commitment and selflessness Tholanah’s work has been honoured by international organisations through prestigious accolades that include the David Kato Vision & Voice Award in 2015 – an award that recognises and supports the work of leaders who uphold the rights and dignity of LGBTI people globally. Last year during the SA AIDS Conference held in Durban she became the first non-medical, black woman to receive the Elizabeth Taylor Human Rights Award. These laurels acknowledge the work Tholanah chose. Her own experiences and observations have contributed to her devoting her life and time to women living with HIV and AIDS, as well as working with the LGBTI community.
Tholanah has been consistently dedicated to volunteering for women’s rights activism, especially those living with HIV/AIDS.
“I could not have made such an impact had it not been for other people who gave me support,” she says.
She sees her voluntary work as compensation for the backing she has received. Especially from friends and family considering that she is a woman living with HIV/AIDS and as a human rights defender. The situation is worse for women living with HIV/AIDS because they are faced with stronger discrimination and stigma due to their position in society. Being HIV positive is associated with promiscuity and immorality and the African society often considers the two unacceptable in a woman. In highlighting the main challenges that women face, she elaborates on the various ways in which women are simply failing to access health services both directly and indirectly.
Tholanah notes that there is limited access to updated and accurate information about the condition. This is also the case with available options of medication, making it more difficult for women to make the best choices for themselves. This is despite the assumption that government and civil society organisations have done extensive information dissemination.
She says Anti-Retro Viral Drugs (ARVs) are “free”. The air quotes? Well, there are costs associated with getting to and from where one can collect the drugs, patients often must travel long distances. These are often overlooked.
Most health centres charge between a $1 and $5 as user fees. But Tholanah notes that $1 is too high for women who have no source of income. She highlights that although one does not have to pay for the actual cost of ARVs they must still cover the cost of commuting to the health centre, as well as for any further treatment of other conditions they may be diagnosed of.
She says there is no routine for TB and cancer screening that comes with free HIV-care. Sometimes patients must outsource these services at an extra cost. In addition, women need more services than just access to ARVs. Besides having their CD4 count and viral load checked, many need access to effective family planning options. The challenge is that Zimbabwe does not have one-stop centres that cater for the myriad of women’s health needs. Tholanah points out that the absence of centralised services also increases the price women must pay to address all their health needs.
Treatment for any side-effects to ARV medication is not for free. This is yet another unforeseen cost that women incur. Anything that happens before or after getting access to treatment is paid for by the patient. Considering that women are mostly economically disadvantaged because of the unequal distribution of wealth, and access to economic opportunities, it is more difficult for them to access the paid-for services.
“Facing my own struggles made me realise and understand how much harder it was for women living with HIV than men.”
Tholanah does not only find herself at risk as an activist, there is also the danger of being criminalised for one’s HIV positive status.
“If a relationship goes wrong, some people take revenge by reporting these women for wilfully engaging in sexual activities with someone without disclosing their condition,” explained Tholanah. Zimbabwe’s Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act criminalises deliberate transmission of HIV in section 79. While these challenges are likely to affect all women living with HIV/AIDS, women in the LGBTQI community experience a peculiar set of challenges.
“Their being accepted in the community is still a challenge. Sometimes they are even reported to the police on the assumption that they are engaging in same-sex intercourse,” explained Tholanah.
In Zimbabwe, the constitution outlaws same-sex relationships but is silent on sexual relationships. Based on the assumption that someone who is in a same sex-relationship is also engaging in sex, lesbians and trans women are sometimes falsely reported to the police. They often face threat and intimidation from the police.
Whilst Zimbabwe may have adopted a constitution that speaks to more equality for men and women, Tholanah argues that it is still a predominantly patriarchal society. This results in men controlling most of the resources. And has a direct impact on the prioritisation of women’s rights.
“In national forums, we keep being told that we are not articulating women’s issues, but the people holding the purse are denying women the opportunity to push their own agenda,” she says.
Despite these challenges, activists’ efforts have not been in vain. There is more awareness among women living with HIV on their rights, and information on health care. More women are becoming activists including those from the LGBTI community.
Anna Sango, a young woman working in HIV activism, has joined the struggle for women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). Currently working as an Assistant Programmes Officer with the Zimbabwe Young Positives, Sango also sits on several boards and committees working with young people living with HIV. She sits on the HIV Young Leaders Fund board and the Y+ board which is the Global Network of Young People Living with HIV.
Sango first met Tholanah in 2010 where she attended a workshop on young women’s dialogues which was hosted by International Community of Women Living with HIV (ICW).
Soon Tholanah invited her to attend an ICW board meeting in South Africa. “During this meeting we got the opportunity to meet other funding and implementing partners such as UNAIDS and NORAD,” explained Tholanah.
NORAD stands for the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad) which is a directorate under the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) who is responsible for implementing the policies and programmes of Norway’s Development Cooperation.
By exchanging contacts and interacting with other delegates, Sango started creating stronger networks with other activists who have been influential in her work.
Seven years after their first meet, she still consults her on issues to speak on and ways of strengthening her activism work. For Sango, Tholanah is not only an activism mentor, she has also been a pillar of strength offering psycho-social support when needed.
“Martha has always been there to give that nudge and push to ensure that young women are represented in HIV related work,” she says.
Patriarchy, discrimination, stigma, arrests of activists, and intimidation by law enforcement agents remain just some of the challenges that women who are involved inactivism face.
To assist women who are being criminalised due to their HIV status or their sexuality, Tholanah suggests that there is need for resources that can allow professionals to monitor cases that go through the courts. This will allow early identification of women in need of legal services. “Facing my own struggles made me realise and understand how much harder it was for women living with HIV than men.”
Tholanah expressed concern on the stigma and discrimination existing among people working in government and civil society organisations, especially those focused on HIV. She called for a positive change and the acceptance of infected people.
“People working in HIV should do self-introspection and change their attitude towards people living with HIV. It’s the only way we can experience real change rather than just good campaign messages.”