Feature story

UN Special Envoy for AIDS in Africa Elizabeth Mataka

15 September 2008

UN Special Envoy for AIDS
in Africa Elizabeth Mataka

The United Nations Special Envoys for HIV/AIDS are individuals specially selected by the UN Secretary-General to help advance the AIDS agenda in the regions they cover. In a series of interviews, we explore their motivation and commitment to ensuring that AIDS is kept high as a political priority within their respective regions of responsibility and operation.

Elizabeth Mataka is a social worker by training and has been working in the field of HIV for the past 18 years. She was appointed Special Envoy for AIDS in Africa in May 2007.

Elizabeth Mataka, you have worked for many years in the AIDS response. What motivates you to work on AIDS?

One of my biggest motivations is the unbelievable change that I have witnessed over the years in the health status of people living with HIV thanks to the wonders of ART (antiretroviral treatment). I am also inspired by the commitment, cooperation and support of the international community, civil society and implementing countries.

I believe in universal access to HIV prevention, care, treatment and support and therefore want to be part of this amazing growth from fatality to hope—hope that treatments will get better and be accessible to all, and hope that someday we wake up to a cure or vaccine.

This hope makes me want to be a part of the movement that shared the earlier frustration and fear and which looks forward to tomorrow’s promise. I saw one of my farm helpers rising from a desperate condition to a healthy and happy man thanks to HIV treatment which I facilitated. He is now a peer-educator to other farm workers, positive and happy.

What do you see as your role as a Special Envoy for HIV and AIDS in Africa?

I see my role as an advocate to promote key issues on AIDS and for the implementation of the UNGASS Declaration of Commitment on HIV and AIDS in Africa. I also represent the UN Secretary-General and/or UNAIDS Executive Director at key events or meetings related to HIV. Along with the UN Teams on AIDS and UN Resident Coordinators I seek to promote the most effective ways to support expanded national responses.

Additionally, I have decided to make the following issues the focus of my work during my tenure of office:

1) Empowerment of women and girls
2) Universal access to HIV prevention, care treatment and support
3) Meaningful engagement of civil society in AIDS responses
4) Advocating for more resources for resource-constrained countries.

What unique qualities do you bring to the role of Special envoy?

I am empathetic, I identify with those who have no voice. I am candid but sensitive and do not shy away from confronting what I believe must be confronted to make a difference to the AIDS epidemic. I have spoken loudly about the need to change those aspects of culture that drive the epidemic. I continually challenge all of us to look at our gender relations and the position of women and urge the need to change our mindset with regard to the socialisation of our children.

I am also respectful of other people’s views and work. So, while I may not necessarily agree with someone or some approach, I give space to others aware that I do not know everything.

How can you make a difference in this role?

As a woman coming from the world’s most AIDS-affected region Africa, I can speak with credibility about the epidemic, its impact on families, communities, individuals and on our overall development agenda.

I can identify with the suffering because I have, as everyone has in this region, lost relatives, friends and workmates to AIDS. Having interacted with people affected by AIDS in many ways, I can advocate based on real-life experience. In this regard I continuously speak of the need for government to introduce social safety-nets for poor people and advocate that good nutrition should be regarded as an integral part of treatment.

Coming from a civil society background, I know the strength, capacity, commitment and dedication of civil society. I also have first hand experience in civil society leadership and how it can pioneer the response to AIDS as it is acknowledged to have done in Zambia for instance. I can therefore be an effective advocate for meaningful civil society involvement.

What's your proudest achievement as Special Envoy for HIV and AIDS in Africa?

I am proud to have been able to develop communication skills and an approach that opens doors for me to address issues at the highest levels of government. I am also proud of the trust placed in me by various civil society groups especially womens’ groups. I have met with Presidents Mwanawasa of Zambia and Kagame of Rwanda and other high ranking Ministers in the region with invitations to travel to a number of other African countries.

My greatest moment was in Germany last year during the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria Replenishment Meeting when I gave a speech that contributed to the new special focus now given to the financial empowerment of women and girls–a long overdue development that I am proud to have contributed towards.

Who or what inspires you?

I am inspired by the numerous community groups and volunteers who do so much work and achieve so much with little resources. I believe that these groups need to be recognised and motivated.

It is an inspiration how, somehow, the AIDS epidemic has helped open up discussions and raise awareness about human rights and other issues that were being swept under the carpet.

I am also inspired by my husband and children who are proud of me and create space for me to do what I am so committed to doing. The understanding and encouragement I get from my family inspires me to go on.