Zimbabwean activist, feminist and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) champion Martha Tholanah is no stranger to controversy as she has doggedly stood up for her beliefs and the rights of the LGBT and HIV-positive communities, writes Nicola Jenvey for MedicalBrief.
Following her violent early life experiences at the hands of soldiers fighting the Zimbabwean liberation war, Tholanah has become one of the most recognisable, effective and influential advocates for human rights within her own country and across southern Africa.
She has already garnered a string of international awards and recognition and, during the recent 21st International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2016) held in Durban, South Africa, the International Aids Society (IAS), American Foundation for Aids Research (amfAR) and The Elizabeth Taylor Foundation joined the ranks of those who have honoured this brave woman.
South African Oscar-award winning actress Charlize Theron presented the openly HIV-positive human rights advocate with the Elizabeth Taylor Human Rights Award in the field of HIV during the Aids 2016 opening session. Theron is also a committed human rights activist, HIV advocate and a UN Messenger of Peace.
Trained as a family therapy counsellor, Tholanah has established and led health-related programmes for communities often left behind or scorned by traditional health services. A leading advocate for improving the involvement of people affected by HIV/Aids in ethical, patient-focused research and outreach, Tholanah is credited with ensuring Zimbabwe’s National Aids Council now includes LGBTs in its programming.
She has also established or led health-related programmes for organisations including the Network of Zimbabwean Positive Women, Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe, the International Community of Women Living with HIV Southern Africa (ICW), the Women and Aids Support Network and the Women’s Action Group.
As a humanitarian programme officer and UN Volunteer, she has served as advocacy advisor to the Zimbabwe Aids Network and serves on the ICW community scientific sub-committee, an international community advisory board of the Aids Clinical Trials Group research run by the US National Institutes of Health. She also presented three sessions at the 17th International AIDS Conference in Mexico in 2008.
However, her efforts to protect basic human rights and prevent injustices like forced sterilisation has seen Tholanah face incarceration and legal sanctions in her home country, known for its homophobic attitudes and legislation, but she remains determined to leave her mark not only on Zimbabwe, but the world.
It was these achievements that earned her the Elizabeth Taylor Award, a presentation also graced by three of the late actress’s grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Also a human rights activist, particularly when the HIV/Aids epidemic exploded among her Hollywood friends and colleagues, Taylor founded amfAR and spent her last years championing the rights and dignities of those infected and affected by the disease.
“Elizabeth Taylor was a bold example of what one person can achieve when they are willing to speak up for the rights of others. Today, her grandchildren are carrying on her work in the global movement to end HIV through the (social media) #GenEndIt campaign and anyone who is familiar with (her) work as a tireless and daring advocate, fundraiser and human rights champion knows why this honour was named for her – and why Martha Tholanah is so worthy of its recognition,” Theron said during the presentation.
During her own opening presentation, Theron challenged the global community to look into their souls when asking why HIV/Aids had not yet been cured. “It is time to acknowledge one simple fact: we value some lives more than others; we value men more than women, straight love more than gay love, white lives more than black lives, adults more than adolescents. We single out the vulnerable, ignore them, let them suffer then let them die. HIV is transmitted by sexism, racism and homophobia,” she said.