Tuesday, 27 November 2018

TENDAI WESTERHOF SOLDIERS ON


Since publicly disclosing her HIV status over a decade ago, fashion model Tendai Westerhof has fought stigma over the disease and describes herself as the face of the scourge.

Married to former Warriors coach Clemens Westerhof, the couple divorced in 2002 the same year she disclosed that she was HIV positive.

Below are excerpts of an interview she had with Daily News reporter Nokuthaba Nkomo.

Q: You have been a powerful and consistent voice channelling programmes for women and girls living with HIV/Aids. What has been your drive?

A: I have come a long way and I would like to thank the media for being there for me, to support me.

As you know when I disclosed my HIV status almost two decades ago, there were so many mixed reactions to it but at the end of the day whatever the media might have written, there is always good publicity.

No publicity is ever bad. I’m glad to say that over the years I’ve managed to transform a lot of women to understand issues around HIV and stories like mine are what they want to hear.

What really drove me is that I’m the face of it, it’s a lived experience, it’s not a drama.

It’s real life and that alone drives you to go out of your way to ensure that you take care of yourself and that the next person has enough information not to contract HIV, and if they do they should take precautions to live with the disease and start a new life once they accept their status.

So this is the road that I’ve travelled and you know it changed my fortunes.

Q: Can you please walk me through your professional history?

A: When I finished my “O” Level, I trained as a secretary and I was a personal assistant (PA) in one of the huge motor companies.

I was one of those top class PAs and I recall in one year I was actually voted secretary of the year. I was good at my job and at that time I was young also doing modelling and being on the front covers of quite a number of magazines, you know, but of course I had my children on the way.

I had my first child in 1987 when I was only 21.

But because God blessed me with a youthful look, I don’t look my age, so even at 21 nobody could tell that I had a child, even entering a beauty pageant at that time when I used to model for Edgars and participate in fashion shows, I was already a mother you know.

Your fate, however, changes things, but the good thing is I’m a person who keeps things that bother me in mind.

My major drive is that I speak out and when you speak pain out on its own it’s some kind of healing.

People react differently to situations especially when it comes to HIV/Aids, even today we still have people who are in denial about their status. Unlike in the past, now we have treatment.

Q: How expensive was it to get treatment at the time you tested positive?

A: I remember in 2002 when I tested positive I would buy my own treatment and it would cost me about $180 000 for a three months’ supply and that money was real Zimbabwean dollars.

I used to take the tablets privately but I realised that it was not the end of the world. I’m one person who I can say people have laughed at, I’ve been mocked over the years, but I no longer focus on that.

I focus on the good things that I’ve done to help people.

Around early 2000s and when I disclosed my HIV status, I formed an organisation known as Public Personalities against HIV and Aids Trust.

I would get a lot of these eloquent high class people coming to my office including their wives and yet I had not even done any course on counselling.

I would just talk to them about how I feel without going by the book, but I talked to them about how I feel as a person who had come face to face with HIV, face to face with Aids.

A few years down the line, I would meet them along the street and they would recognise me.

I recall there was one security company, I think it was Securico, I was the first person they called to talk to their security guards, there were about 7 000.

I went and addressed them in a big stadium just to talk about HIV.

So I really transformed a lot of lives, but to some people it did not go down well with them and I do not know for what reason.

Maybe it’s because I’m a woman, I was speaking out, speaking my mind and taking action about a situation and trying to make people see what it is like to live with HIV.

Q: HIV/Aids has affected both men and women in Zimbabwe and government interventions have been equitably given to both men and women, why have you chosen to represent women more because some critics say it’s akin to being a feminist?

A: No one has ever stopped men from mobilising themselves to fight HIV/Aids.

We are still waiting to see men who will come forward to say they are fighting HIV/Aids as men.

I know at international level we have organisations like Men Engage, so I wouldn’t really take that as an argument, because we know that statistics in Zimbabwe, sub Saharan Africa and the world over, shows that women are more affected by HIV than men.

Therefore we embraced and came out there as women to do something about it.

We are easy to mobilise, we accept and we seek health services more than men.

Naturally as women we accept things faster than men and even when it comes to health seeking behaviour, we tend to visit health facilities and go for medical check-ups.

Since women are more affected than men we then decided to take up the leadership position to deal with issues that affect us as women.

Q: You want to be given space in fund processes as women, what exactly are your expectations?

A: What we are saying as women living with HIV is that we want to contribute through the global fund.

We are not saying it was not being done but many women living with HIV do not have information on how to participate in global fund processes, which is the process that Pan African Positive Women’s Coalition (PAPWC) has been doing, hence the consultations in Mashonaland West in the last couple of days.

Fifty-two percent of the women consulted did not have knowledge of the global fund.

Q: What other projects is PAPWC currently working on?

A: We work with young girls and adolescents on issues of reproductive health and on building life skills.

We capacity build support groups of women living with HIV and we help them formulate support groups where they do not exist. We also ensure that women get involved in all processes to do with HIV in the country and beyond.

Q: Are young women and adolescents responsive to these programmes seeing that they are usually uncomfortable when it comes to disclosing HIV statuses?

A: They do participate in their own way especially in youth friendly corners.

There are support groups for adolescents living with HIV and we always make sure not to mix them with adult women because sometimes they do not feel comfortable.

They are still growing and sometimes they do not want to disclose their status and we need to respect their privacy, so that we do not expose them to stigma and discrimination.

We still have a lot of stigma and discrimination towards people living with HIV so you can imagine if it’s an adolescent girl who is dating and it’s known that she’s HIV positive.

It comes with a lot of implications. She might be rejected and even the courting guy might end up saying I don’t want you because you are HIV positive.

Despite even him not knowing his status, the blame is always put on women, so it’s important to give them privacy.

However, we continue to give them information so that they can make informed decision. As PAPWC we do not work in isolation.

Whilst we work in communities we also form partnerships and collaborations with some organisations.

There are also some youth organisations who are targeting youths in tertiary institutions.

Q: What are your future plans as PAPWC?

A: We want to continue this work to ensure that we keep the momentum especially for women from vulnerable communities and the hard to reach areas in the grassroots.

They have their own wishes and desires. They were saying they want to have self-help projects and they want their support groups to be functional, so we want to be able to build their capacities for support groups to make sure they are sustainable so that the women are empowered.

Once they are empowered they can do a lot to help their families and take care of their personal health needs.

We also want PAPWC to be capacitated to ensure that information can flow from the grassroots to the highest level, so that the voices of women can be captured and amplified. Daily News

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