From 2001 through the end of 2006, humanitarian, activist and diplomat Stephen Lewis was the UN’s first Special Envoy for AIDS in Africa. Together with a small group of colleagues led by gender and AIDS specialist Paula Donovan, Stephen’s “Envoy team” advocated for more attention and improved responses to HIV/AIDS — by the governments and societies of African countries most threatened by the pandemic, by the wealthy nations in a position to subdue it, by the international organizations and agencies charged with finding and acting on solutions, and by global citizens.
The Envoy team demonstrated that outspoken advocacy is the worst enemy of complacency. Although the Envoy term of office ended, the need for straightforward, uncompromising voices did not. The pandemic raged on. There was no doubt among AIDS activists that in the absence of fearless, persistent, and persuasive advocacy, promises would fade and progress would falter. As numbness slowly replaced shock over the injustice of AIDS, complacency crept into the responses of world leaders, governments, the United Nations and other power brokers, decision- and policy-makers charged with finding ways to release the tens of millions of people still caught in the grip of AIDS. Despite extraordinary developments available to people living with AIDS in the western world that had turned HIV from a death threat to a chronic condition, millions of poor people were dying without any hope of access to that treatment. Countless millions more were still being stalked by a virus that favors the people least advantaged by mainstream society: women, sexual minorities, racial and ethnic minorities, people with disabilities... The imperative to amplify their voices and join the struggle was as strong as ever.
In 2007, to help fill the growing need for the straightforward, passionate, fearless and uncompromising advocacy AIDS deserves, to sustain the voice of the “Envoy team” and build on it, Stephen Lewis and Paula Donovan co-founded AIDS-Free World.
The new organization was established under the non-profit umbrella of the Tides Center in 2007. But given its roots, AIDS-Free World was able to start immediately with an established reputation and with excellent access — to world leaders, top-ranking government and UN officials, key opinion- and decision-makers, leading scientists and academics, influential journalists and major media outlets, celebrity spokespersons, countless of the grassroots leaders, activists and advocates representing women, youth, people living with HIV/AIDS and human rights defenders among people with disabilities. And by virtue of extensive previous work and travel, particularly in the most affected countries in Africa, we had forged alliances with the community organizers, caregivers, health workers, service providers and other frontline champions of the struggle against AIDS.
AIDS-Free World grew rapidly from its solid foundation, and we were soon able to build an expert staff and broaden our advocacy tools, including a strong focus on strategic legal work against impunity and discrimination, to take on new challenges as funding allowed.
Our short history’s high points have been achieved by sticking to one absolute conviction: when discrimination ends, so will AIDS. That conviction continues to guide our choices and drive our work. We are proud of significant successes so far, including the leading role we played in the creation of the UN’s first agency for women, our crucial work in exposing to the world the sexual crimes against humanity orchestrated in Zimbabwe against political opponents of President Robert Mugabe, and our part in placing disability rights squarely and irrevocably on the global AIDS agenda. We are fortunate that our advocacy has earned the financial support of a small group of dedicated individuals and foundations: we expect many more successes, and hope for expanded support. The struggle continues.