Martha Tholanah
Posted April 28, 2009 from Zimbabwe

I was looking forward to a restful Easter, when on the eve of Good Friday I went into a meeting where I thought I would be in a safe space. This was a feedback meeting from those who had attended the United Nations (UN) Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). The UN CSW was held in February 2009 in New York, and a number of Zimbabwean organisations who are seen as the leaders in advocating around gender equality, women’s rights, and anti-stigma and discrimination of vulnerable or marginalised communities. One of the organisations present is a male-led men’s organisation that focuses on challenging the traditional concept of male dominance over women, seeking to transform men’s mindsets into treating women as equals, with respect and dignity. The other four organisations are women-issues-focussed, led by women proponents of women’s rights as human rights.

I must say I went into this meeting by default – my organisation which is a network of positive women was never invited. The director of one of the organisations that I work with received an invitation, and as she was unable to go, she asked me to represent the organisation at the meeting. Other participants in the meeting were from Harare-based NGOs, one based outside Harare, and legislators. Each participant in that meeting was asked to introduce themselves by saying their names and the organisations they represented. When it was my turn, I decided that I would introduce myself as who I identify as, considering the nature of the meeting and the gathering. I said my name, and stated that I am a feminist. The response was laughter around the room – I am not sure why they laughed.

Then the first shocker in that meeting then came from one of the women – a respected lawyer, working for a women’s organisation that looks at women’s rights in regards to the law – “Oh! So you don’t do men!” It was not a question – a statement that shocked me in terms of what being a feminist had to do with “doing men or women”; why such a “safe space” all of a sudden was apparently not so safe for all women. I assumed by her saying that I don’t do men she was insinuating that I was sexually attracted to and slept with women. After the first reaction of shock, I became disgusted by the whole system and the process we engage in – calling ourselves advocates for human rights of all, when some of us can unashamedly display such homophobic and discriminatory statements in the presence of other human rights advocates. In the meantime, no one else said anything about that statement. To me, that meant the derogatory statement was condoned, and that if there were any same-sex loving people in the room, they lost hope of ever having the “human rights advocates” ever stand for their rights.

The main issues discussed were to do with care work and criminalisation of HIV. It was revealed in this meeting that the law on criminalisation that is applied in Zimbabwe today was passed in 1996. The questions were what position we take as a nation. On the criminalisation issue, one of the prominent women leading lawyers stated that she suggested we take a position to keep the law as it is, proposing that it was a good law that protects women. I was astounded as I wondered whether the law gurus who speak for us and protect our interests had ever cared to consult with the women in the communities, explaining the law and hearing their views. In the absence of full information, and adequate health services that ensure access for every Zimbabwean citizens, those whose mandate it is to ensure that the service is there are the ones who should be prosecuted under this law, as they are failing the nation.

While the experience frightened and immobilised me for a while, I committed to say this out loud. Maybe some day, some people will learn. Maybe some day, human rights advocates will learn to truly encompass human beings in their advocacy for human rights.

Comments 6

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  • Jensine Larsen
    Apr 28, 2009
    Apr 28, 2009

    Dearest Martha, It sounds like an exhausting meeting full of astoundments and disappointing realizations. I'm proud of you for speaking out about it, and refusing to be immobilized. It is because of voices like yours that ignorance and apathy - even in so-called human rights leaders! - willl be challenged, and rooted out. I can only imagine how heavy it must feel to have so much important work before you, and then to feel that your "colleagues" are not even pushing alongside you, but against you!!! UGH!!! We are with you in your quest for justice and equality. In our country, it seems there are countless layers of prejudices - young, old, skin color, religion, sex - and over decades of human rights activism...they are slowly being addressed and peeling off the layers - mainly because people have stood up and refused to be silenced. You are a consciousness-bringer --- so keep standing tall! Love,

  • LauraB
    Apr 28, 2009
    Apr 28, 2009


    What I think your are in touch with is the women in your communities- which in turn connects you to their voices, their desires, their challenges. You said, "I was astounded as I wondered whether the law gurus who speak for us and protect our interests had ever cared to consult with the women in the communities, explaining the law and hearing their views."

    It's good that you spoke of your experience on PulseWire. It's good to stand tall. It's good to push through to the other side and give voice to yourself and for the women you represent.

    Good for you and thank you for standing up.

    Warmly, Laura

  • Auma
    Apr 28, 2009
    Apr 28, 2009

    What you went through shows us just how not everybody is at the right place.We have "Human Rights Advocates" who only advocate for what is in their personal interest and with a lot of egoism.They have never asked themselves whose advocates they are!

    You are in the right way.The world need many more people like you to move forward.How sad it is to have titles that we do not serve for!

    I urge you to keep up the spirit.Do not be intimidated.Do not give up!



  • Maria de Chirikof
    Apr 28, 2009
    Apr 28, 2009

    It is so good that you went to the meeting and learned how it is heading. We can never let others speak for us, since they might not say what we think exactly. It is what we really need to change about "the system" so it is actually a true representation.

    I can so feel what you went through since here in America the Alaskan/American Indigenous people are "represented" by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a group of mostly white men who dictate our wants and needs. Their old idea was if we tried to change it will get it worse then this so stay with the "devil you know". But we are learning how to group ourselves like they do to show we can do it for ourselves and they are no longer "needed".

    It is what all marginalized groups need to do. The great news is we are all learning to speak up and find our voices. Be very proud of yourself since you really did help other woman by daring to speak up like that and continuing to do so will also help. It is hard to fight against the stream and they have learned what to say to "shut you up" like implying you are a lesbian if you say Feminist. It took real nerve and a true value of yourself as a person to do that!

    Keep it up!


  • Martha Tholanah
    Apr 29, 2009
    Apr 29, 2009

    Thank you, Jensine, Laura, Leah, Maria

    Thank you for the forum, responses and spurring me on. I have been a very angry woman due to a lot of injustices that the ordinary people in Zimbabwe are enduring, with do-gooder advocates forgetting to look within themselves before speaking for others. The result is that they make pronouncements that are out of touch with the reality on the ground. World Pulse has given me space to write and get it off my chest. I am in the process of writing a letter to the Minister of Education on the abuse parents are suffering from the education practitioners. Schools are taking advantage of the parents' quest for a future for their children. I will share the letter, and any response if there is one.

    Take care Martha

  • Terry Shiundu
    Apr 29, 2009
    Apr 29, 2009


    Keep doing what you do, somehow, somethings will change along the way. It is sad that you were misunderstood and judged wrongly just because of one declaration you made of who you are. All the same, not everyone may appreciate what we do, the truth is, we have to keep on going as long as we know the path we take is heading somewhere, in the right direction. May the Lord bless your work.