By Shannon Clarke
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Humanitarian Stephen Lewis has traveled to some of the most devastating regions of the world, listening to stories of injustice unimaginable to many in this country. For five years he served as the United Nation’s General Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS and has devoted his career to advocating for social justice.
It’s this dedication, he says, that puts him in the position to criticize the UN’s mishandling of women’s issues around the world, particularly the “starving” of UN Women.
“The hopes that rested in this organization were, in significant measure, dashed,” Lewis said during a lecture on gender inequality at Ryerson University April 17. “They simply haven’t been able to take on this initiative because they’ve been so under-funded.”
Gender Inequality: The Most Important Struggle on the Planet, hosted by the International Issues Discussion Series on April 17, was the last of in a series of similar lectures held this year.
Lewis said he is cautiously optimistic of the newly passed resolution on sexual violence. Last weekend, U.K.’s foreign minister William Hague, with the celebrity backing of Angelina Jolie, announced a plan for G8 nations to pour millions into combating systemic sexual violence against women in war-torn countries. Canada has pledged $5 million to the effort.
“Take this with a barrel of salt, the commitments made to women,” said Lewis, pointing out that this promise has been made at least twice before.
The current Distinguished Professor at Ryerson questioned the efficacy of the UN in the case of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where militant groups have waged war on the nation’s women through systemic rape, despite hosting the largest contingent of peacekeepers anywhere in the world.
“The record is so deeply flawed,” said Lewis.
G8 resolutions always state a clear and specific focus on conflict countries, like Syria and Libya (“As if rape were not a world wide condition,” he said) despite the reality of sexual violence in South Africa, Zimbabwe and systemic abuses within the United States military – none of which are conflict countries.
This explicit focus on the developing world – while not unwarranted – ignores the subtler but no less egregious and pervasive injustices women in first world nations deal with every day. Lewis cited Steubenville, the cases of Rehtaeh Parsons and Amanda Todd, and the hundreds of missing Aboriginal women in Canada as proof of the uphill battle toward gender equality.
Part of the struggle is getting a substantial number of women alongside the body of men who make up the UN’s decision and policy-making panels and organizations. Lewis talked about three cases, including the International HIV/AIDS conference last July, where there is a glaring lack of women present in making the decisions that affect them most.
Women will continue to bare the burden of poverty, war, disease even the environment, Lewis said.
“Unless you give primacy to women, things won’t change.”
It’s what he calls the “arrogance” and hypocrisy of the UN, especially as powerful institutions like the Vatican has consistently had a voice in international affairs despite of its well-documented abuses and discrimination, including resisting the UN’s effort to reduce violence against women.
“I have a very wide emotional range, but it usually just goes from rage to rage,” said Lewis of his frustrations with the current state of women’s rights worldwide.
Lewis’s voice cracked at times as he retold the stories of the women he’d met. He also managed to make the audience laugh, however, adding some much needed brevity to a frustrating and disturbing discussion. He joked about his abandoned academic pursuits, his many, many honorary degrees and how he credits his wife, columnist Michele Landsberg, for his feminist education.
“In my 20’s I was absolutely [a] quintessential, socialist, sexist jock,” he said. “Had I not married Michele, it probably would have taken 40 years to grow out of that.”
But he hopes however long it takes his peers and the younger generations to “come to their senses” they will welcome the breadth of information available with open minds. Lewis speaks highly of non-government organizations like Human Rights Watch and the strength of institutions worldwide doing the work their governments can’t (or won’t) do. The strength of African women, especially, keeps him hopeful.
“I just can’t get over their ability to create grassroots, community-level organizations, and their decency, their generosity of spirit, their sophistication, their intelligence – I wish the world could understand how powerful it is,” he said.
It’s a significant statement – not just because of his acknowledged privilege as a white male activist – but also because Western and first-world feminism often makes the mistake of assuming agency for all women worldwide. Earlier this month, the Ukrainian feminist group Femen launched Topless Jihad Day in a stand against religious oppression. The move drew sharp condemnation from Muslim feminists for its paternalistic and ethnocentric presumptions.
For his part, Lewis urges the public to – at the very least – stay on top of international issues and find a cause about which they are passionate.
“Everyone has to care,” he said. “It doesn’t serve anyone to be defeatist.” M