Seen and Heard: Stephen Lewis on Gender Equality

Wyndham Bettencourt-McCarthy 

“There is no issue more important [than women’s rights],” humanitarian Stephen Lewis told a packed atrium at Ryerson University on Wednesday night. Lewis, who is currently a visiting professor at the school, spoke to students and the public at the free event on global gender issues as part of the student and faculty-run International Issues Discussion series.

Lewis began the talk by speaking fondly of his wife, journalist Michele Landsberg, and her influence on his interest in feminism and women’s rights. “She likes to say it took her ten years to turn me into a human being,” he joked. His anecdotes, however, quickly turned serious, as he launched into a discussion about his involvement in the international fight to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS. Of the population living with HIV in Africa, 61% are women and girls, yet Lewis pointed out that at nearly every panel and symposium on the issue, women are rarely–if ever–represented. “There’s this Pavlovian embrace of misogyny,” he said, recalling a conference where he was invited to speak alongside 18 men and one woman. “And this is for a pandemic that has disproportionately ravaged the lives of women.”

Lewis went on to address the exclusion of women in politics around the world (Rwanda is the only county where women hold more than 50% of the seats in Parliament, he noted, possibly as a tragic result of the male deaths during the 1990s genocide) as well as the failure of the international community to adequately support initiatives that attempt to directly address gender inequality. Lewis pointed out that UN Women, which did not begin operations until 2011, survives on a budget a fraction of the size of that of the World Food Programme or UNICEF, and is consistently at the mercy of funding cuts. “We have to take these international commitments to women with a barrel of salt,” he said.

Even when countries do take a stand against atrocities committed against women, such as UK foreign secretary William Hague’s recent pledge to address rape in conflict countries, Lewis argued that they fail to discuss the prevalence of sexual violence in the rest of the world. “What about India? What about South Africa–the rape capital of the world? These are not ‘conflict countries,’” Lewis said, also pointing to rampant rape in the U.S. military and the recent cases of sexual assault in Stubenville and Nova Scotia. Lewis also noted the UN Security Council’s inability–or refusal–to help the nearly 2 million women who have been raped in the Democratic Republic of Congo, despite the presence of UN peacekeeping troops throughout the country. As Lewis spoke of Dr. Denis Mukwege–a gynaecologist in the DRC who has surgically repaired thousands of women’s reproductive organs after horrific sexual assaults and torture–his voice became emotional. “The whole world knows this is happening, and the Security Council isn’t doing anything,” he said.

Frustrated by the lack of international action on behalf of female victims of sexual violence, Lewis spoke about how he and several colleagues decided to take action themselves. After learning about the brutal rapes of women occurring during the 2008 election season in Zimbabwe, Lewis’s organization AIDS-Free World requested that identified perpetrators from President Mugabe’s political party be charged with sexual assault and torture. Lewis used the principle of universal jurisdiction to pressure South African prosecutors to levy charges of crimes against humanity against the rapists, which they agreed to pursue earlier this year.

Throughout the hour-long talk, Lewis encouraged the audience to become involved in NGOs and other charitable organizations that are working to advance the rights of women. While he stated that he hasn’t completely lost faith in the international institutions like the UN, he asserted that right now there is “more and more strength coming from outside of the international community.” In the following Q&A, Lewis said that the first thing audience members could do to advance the issue was to join an organization like Human Rights Watch or the Nobel Women’s Initiative. “Write, talk, sign petitions about these issues on the Internet,” he said, stressing the importance of putting pressure on political leaders.

Lewis concluded the evening by briefly touching upon environmental concerns and how climate change will disproportionately impact the lives of women, particularly in areas at risk for drought and famine, such as Sub-Saharan Africa. Still, Lewis was determined to end a hopeful note. When an audience member asked how he maintained his optimism after witnessing so many atrocities, Lewis cited the women he has met as his inspiration. “I derive strength from the phenomenal courage of the African women,” he said, also mentioning the hope he felt upon seeing the success of his friend Eve Ensler’s One Billion Rising project. “One day, the pendulum will swing,” he promised. “You can’t give up on these issues.”

Wyndham Bettencourt-McCarthy is a 2014 Master of Public Policy Candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Toronto. She also holds a BA (Honours) in English from the University of Toronto, and has written for a number of Toronto publications, including The Grid, Eye Weekly,Toronto AV Club, University of Toronto Alumni Magazine, and others. 

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