Khadija Taoufik Moalla has worked tirelessly to destigmatise AIDS, especially for women in the Arab world.
After graduating from law school in Tunisia, she went to France to pursue her postgraduate studies, acquiring a PhD in international law before returning to teach in her home country.
One of her most significant contributions is her support for people living with AIDS, known as PLWA. Moalla has worked as UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) regional coordinator for the HIV/AIDS Regional Programme in the Arab States from 2003 to 2013.
Khadija’s honours include a Leadership Award from the United Nations General Assembly president, recognising her efforts with religious leaders and the creation of the network of multi-faith organisations responding to HIV, known as Chahama. In 2011, Moalla was chosen as one of the 500 most influential personalities in the Arab region. She was recently appointed to the 20th committee of gender and health of The Lancet and she is currently working as a senior policy and programme adviser to UN Women in Baghdad, Iraq.
What spurred your interest in the fields you have embraced in your career?
Since the beginning of my study in Tunisia, and while being in France, I have always been interested in human rights, and how laws can be interpreted in legislation that protects every individual within the community.
I had an interest in the relationship between international law, rights and freedoms, and how they impact development.
I was involved in a local Tunisian NGO that works in the field of AIDS and PLWA rights and, after attending several conferences, I started to understand the significance of defending those people. This made the United Nations (UN) approach me with a one-year contract to coordinate these efforts in the Arab region.
This is how I spent ten years of my life and career, doing weekly visits to several countries in the region, destigmatising PLWA, especially women, while raising awareness of the necessity of protective legislation.
How did the Chahama programme come about?
Before joining the UN, the director of UNDP invited me to the US, where we started writing global rights strategies for AIDS, one of which was working with religious leaders to destigmatise PLWA.
I had the conviction that, in the Arab region, two actors are the most influential for destigmatising PLWA: the media and religious leaders, and thus, I planned for activities involving both since 2003. This has been along with endeavours of governments, civil society and the private sector.
As you might expect, the whole idea of involving religious leaders hasn’t been appealing to most of the actors at the UN, but I persisted and I never regret it.
This is how Chahama came to light in 2006, after some developments. The programme proved efficient, and has tangible impacts on the ground, like for instance, new legislation to protect PLWA in Yemen and Djibouti, a 24-fold increase in access of Yemenis to AIDS treatment and an eight-fold increase in voluntary counselling and testing in Morocco.
I still have good relations with those Muslim and Christian leaders all over the region. This proves the sustainability of the idea and validates its significance.
Who do you think needs to learn transformational leadership in the region?
I think it is for everyone. There is no way we can get over terrorists’ ideologies unless we embrace these strategies, created and developed by Monica Sharma, the previous [HIV/AIDS group] director at UNDP.
Transformational leadership is considered a methodology for administration, where the leader motivates the employees, inspires them and encourages them to innovate and create change, which in turn helps the growth and the success of the organisation, through granting employees more authority and more space for creativity.
I am really happy that we succeeded this year in translating her book [Radical Transformational Leadership] into Arabic.
How have you managed, as a woman, to excel in your career while having a family?
I am no exception, I am just like any other woman, who works inside and outside the house, and keen to support everyone within my family.
Nevertheless, I perceive that happy women are those who have the capacity to raise happy and successful kids, because after all, kids will be inspired with their mother’s success, taking her as a model for hard work and persistence.
On the contrary, those oppressed women who are deprived of their rights, will normally practise some form of negative violence on their kids.
I strongly believe that women’s freedom and equal access to education, work and political participation are important or the development of any community; it is not a grant from anyone, it’s a necessity. Only progressive societies are built on values of human dignity and social justice, where equal opportunities are the norm, with no exceptions.
However, communities lacking these values will live forever in misery and oppression, transferring despair to the coming generations, killing their ambition and creativity. This usually features in young people’s involvement in terrorist groups, illegal immigration or being addicted to drugs.
How do women become more visible in leadership positions?
For me, what matters is women getting equal opportunity, because communities that lack the culture of equality will never implement it for any group.
The prevalence of masculine culture at the expense of equality normally results in denying women most opportunities to get advancements in their careers or acquiring leadership.
To change this, we need to intervene very early, consolidating equality values through the education system and repeating them in capacity-building workshops, taking into account that unfortunately, some women embrace notions of inequality and defend them. We can clearly see this in women accepting inequality, or women who are in leadership positions, but deny other women’s access to similar status.
You are now the senior policy and programme adviser of UN Women in Iraq. What drives you at this stage of your career?
Since leaving the UN system, I have been working – besides being a Tunisian lawyer – in a diversity of international consultancies, and my mission in Iraq is part of a long-term consultancy through which I learned a lot and got introduced to great people.
Currently, I work with top legal and executive decision-makers, and I do not have any ambitions other than working hard, introducing the Tunisian model in personal status law, where women in Tunisia had an impressive work and success in the field of freedom and rights.
What is the key to your success?
I believe that I have been raised with some values that have always helped me both in my personal life and professional career. I remember how my father has always been keen on his daughters’ excellence in their education. He also used to send me to England in the summer, as young as 14 years, to learn the English language.
Also, my mother, though she was illiterate, has been very supportive for our education. My parents’ work paid off, and most of their daughters have completed their PhDs in different fields.
I have been raised to value respecting myself and others, building trust, commitment and hard work. I have raised my daughters with the same values that I believe will help them lead successful lives.
How do you see your appointment as one of the members of the 20th committee of gender and health of The Lancet?
I feel this honour came to crown 30 years of hard work, to serve Tunisia and the MENA region, and through my work in this committee I am to serve all continents and people.
I am happy to be part of a global high-profile committee, in fields of health and gender equality; working to empower women in diverse fields. I am also happy, being appointed from the African continent, together with another woman from South Africa, and I am deeply honoured being the only one with an Arabic background, which puts on my shoulder the responsibility of advocating for all women of the region.
My commitment for the next three years, through this voluntary work, is to defend women in general and MENA women in particular.
What I like most is working with high-profile groups whose members accepted working for the people, for free. This gives more opportunity for expressing opinions freely and hence finding appropriate strategies.
Personally, I would never accept compromising my freedom of thought or expression; these are what give me the ability to create and innovate.
An earlier version of this articles was first published on SciDev.Net