Please find below a small selection of speeches by Stephen Lewis. Mr. Lewis makes dozens of speeches a year, many of which are not directly related to his role as Chair of the Board of the Stephen Lewis Foundation. This is a small collection of speeches he has made recently about the AIDS epidemic and related issues.
These speeches may be reprinted, distributed, quoted, or copied as long as it is not for commercial use and they are properly sourced.
To browse older speeches, click on a year from the list on the right.
I first came to Uganda when I was 23 years old. That was 54 years ago. Now I am a grandfather! (And you will notice that I am wearing glasses.)
I have spent a great deal of time wandering around Uganda over the years.
I have been to the North, to Gulu and Kitgum; I have been to the North-West, to Arua; I’ve been out to the far West to Fort Portal and to the East in Tororo. I have of course spent time in Entebbe and Kampala and Jinja and everywhere in the centre... I love this country!
All of us at the Stephen Lewis Foundation – and you have seen many here over the last couple of days – are proud and honoured to be associated with this remarkable grandmothers gathering!
We are also proud and honoured to join with Reach Out, and Kitovu, and St. Francis, and PEFO and Nyaka and ROTOM in putting together – with extraordinary intelligence and efficiency – this astonishing grandmothers’ gathering. And now the grandmothers of Uganda take the leadership in the grandmothers’ social movement across the entire continent of Africa.
I am filled with admiration and respect for what you have achieved in the last two and a half days. And I know that after the meeting is over, you will be able to form a network of grandmothers which will advance the principles of the Uganda statement.
The statement is a great document. It is a beacon of hope—of light—to pierce the darkness of HIV and AIDS and to take us into the future.
I especially love these words in the statement: “We as grandmothers have done our part. Fuelled by our love, we raise the next generation; provide food, schooling, homes, and security.”
Now I want I want to get into the heart of the document. The document says that the grandmothers of Uganda have not had their voices heard.
Now your voices will be heard by the politicians!
I was thinking of the Deputy Director of Social Protection, who spoke to you yesterday afternoon. He will never forget your faces or your voices! I think he was afraid to leave his home this morning in case he met grandmothers on his way to work.
The statement says healthcare services must be made available. I want to point out: that is not a request; that is your human right!
The statement says that you must be protected from land-grabbing. That is not a request; that is your human right!
The statement says that you should have property rights and inheritance rights. That is not some abstract hope; that is your human right!
The statement says that there must be an end to all violence of every kind against grandmothers. That is not some wish; that is an absolute human right!
The statement says that you must be protected from theft. I heard that time and time again in the sessions yesterday. That is not some hope or wish; that is your right to protection!
The statement says that grandchildren must have access to finances and to counselling and that this is an obligation of the state. And the statement is right. It is your human right to have access to finances and counselling for your grandchildren.
And finally, above all, the statement says that the social protection of pensions should be available to every grandmother across Uganda without exceptions!
The question of social protection grants is one that will obviously be introduced over time. But now that you have a grandmothers’ gathering and are a considerable, eloquent force, you have every right in the world to go to the politicians and the leadership of your country and demand that pensions be rolled out as quickly as possible!
You now have the support of civil society. They are rallying around you as we speak. You have friends far and wide.
Sitting here in the front two rows are the Canadian grandmothers who have come to show their love, their affection, their regard, and their solidarity for the grandmothers of Uganda.
As I said at the outset, the staff of the Stephen Lewis Foundation – there are many here – want to join with you in this great movement of grandmothers.
I have a special mention for the Foundation because my daughter is the Executive Director. And it's quite wonderful to work with people as talented as the leadership of the six organizations who have brought this gathering together.
And I remind you of the last words of the statement: You represent millions of grandmothers on this continent. You say, “We have breath to sing and energy to dance,” and I would add: “And voices to be heard!”
Let your voices ring with triumph throughout Uganda. And thank you for letting the SLF be a part of your life!
Royal Roads University, Victoria, British Columbia
At a presidential dinner last night, I reminded the guests that I was older than Royal Roads and that, therefore, you have to treat me with a certain amount of deference and generosity, and allow my eccentricities not to offend you. At the dinner table as well, was Dr. Catherine Etmanski, who has opened up t his fascinating course at Royal Roads—a Master’s degree in Global Leadership. And it occurred to me as I listened to the discussion that this might well be a theme which I could explore with you in the few minutes that I have at my command.
I always think it’s a little presumptuous at these convocations when speakers attempt to tell you how to live your lives, and exactly what to do as you move out into the merciless world of unemployment or employment, depending what faces you. I’m more inclined, therefore, to rely on some thematic observations, rather than to dictate the assumptions that might otherwise be conferred. I’ve spent a lot of my life engaged in international issues... and I have spent the last few days in New York, dealing with the United Nations. And yesterday at the Security Council of the United Nations, there was an intense debate on what happens to children in situations of armed conflict. And the Secretary General of the United Nations was saying that 2014 was the worst-recorded year in the last couple of decades for children. And that the evisceration and annihilation of children as a result of the Syrias and the Libyas and the Afghanistans and the Iraqs and the Yemens, was almost too heart-breaking to imagine, let alone to comment on. And my mind went back to those 220 young girls—the Chibok girls, as they’re called—who were abducted by Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria more than a year ago now. We’ll never see them again. The desperate violations of their little personas is incomprehensible. They undoubtedly have been physically abused, they’ve been raped on a regular basis, whenever the Boko Haram militants felt they were sexually-entitled. They have suffered terribly as domestic servants. Many, many of them are doubtless pregnant and beside themselves at how to handle the pregnancy. And yet the world never adequately responded. We all promised, and nothing happened. We managed to find drones which can pinpoint the assassination of Al Qaeda terrorist from Pakistan to Yemen, but we cannot summon the collective determination to rescue 200 young girls. And there’s something vastly distorted in the priorities of human kind that that’s the case.
While I was at the United Nations just these last couple of weeks, news emerged which electrified Europe that, in the middle of 2014, approximately one year ago, a number of little boys—aged 8 and 9—were sexually abused and sodomized by French troops who were actually peacekeeping in the Central African Republic. And the knowledge of what had happened to those little boys was gathered by the UN and no one said anything for an entire year. And it emerged that at the highest levels of officialdom in the United Nations, there had been damage control, there had been secrecy, there had been a conspiratorial network to suppress the information on what was happening to these children. And I constantly think to myself, what kind of leadership do we have in so many parts of the world? How is it possible that – in our institutional arrangements – there isn’t a greater energy to confront the most diabolical and terrifying dimensions of human depravity? And when I think of what happened to those little boys and what happens to the Chibok girls of Nigeria, I think about the broader issue of sexual violence, which has become a kind of epidemic around the world. It’s not only in conflict; it’s intimate partner violence; it’s marital rape; it’s gang rape. It’s what happens outside of conflict. You remember the terrible rape and murder of the woman on the bus in Delhi in December, 2012 and the way in which that pattern was repeated in a number of countries like South Africa. It’s heart-breaking. It’s incomprehensible. It’s rooted in gender-inequality. There is no struggle on the planet more important than the struggle for gender equality. You cannot marginalize 50% of the world’s population and ever expect to achieve social justice. It won’t happen.
The litany—the catalogue—of discrimination and stigma and violence visited on the women of the world, whether it’s sex trafficking or female genital mutilation or the absence of land right or the absence of inheritance rights or the absence of political representation, taken together it’s a monstrous reality which we must overcome. And this September at the UN, all of the countries will gather to consecrate what they call the Sustainable Development goals—goals that will govern public policy in most countries for the next 15 years. And two of those goals are particularly important. One of them is the elimination of poverty and hunger. And what we have learned as we direct our views to those goals is that the very rich countries of the Western world are not anywhere near reaching the target which was decided on in 1970 of finding 0.7% of Gross Domestic Product to assign to foreign aid. As a matter of fact, Canada has dropped almost to the bottom of the numbers of Western countries in the percentage of aid. It’s painful to think that our country—my country, your country—is so delinquent in this measure.
On the other side of course is a question of what we do about climate change, which will be central to discussions in September. I’m one of those people who believes that by the year 2050—I teach this stuff so I have to read it all the time—we’re going to have an apocalyptic event which will eclipse everything from the tsunami to what happened in New Orleans. Even, in terms of the measurable human impact, to what happened in Haiti. And there doesn’t seem to be a readiness to recognize that we’re fighting for the survival of a planet where our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren are put at enormous risk for survival. And just a couple of weeks ago the G7 nations got together and congratulated themselves—it was kind of an orgy of self-congratulation—as they said by 2100 we will no longer be carbon-dependent economies. But what a load of rhetorical claptrap. There were no targets. There was nothing by way of compliance. There were no punitive dimensions if you didn’t comply. It was just a series of aspirational, voluntary assertions which you know and I know never reach implementation.
And necessarily, before I bring these remarks to an end, I want to mention HIV & AIDS, which is a pandemic by no means over, despite the constant talk of the end of AIDS. We still have 20 million people living with the virus to whom we have to get treatment. And they’re fighting desperately to survive in the communities in the grassroots of Africa. And right at this moment in time, the major international financial donors in major international countries are drawing back and the funds are drying up. And I cannot convey to you the human consequences on the ground as people struggle to survive. It’s like a vast Ebola network, except it isn’t 10,000 who die, it’s over a million and a half who are still dying every year, and the effort must continue to be made in the face of these financial restraints which are imposed on those who need the money most. May I diverge slightly to say: we always have money to bail out the banks, and we always have money for corporate bonuses, and we always have money to fight wars, but we never have sufficient funds to help global public health. And that’s what has to be overcome.
The absence of global leadership on so many fronts is obviously disheartening, but it’s disheartening in our country as well. This is the last honorary degree I ever intend to accept. I don’t expect to have any further degrees offered, so it’s an easy statement to make... but I want to say to you that one of the things which is inexplicable to me as a Canadian is the government’s response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I was an honorary witness in Vancouver at that Commission and sitting in the audience and listening to the testimony of men and women who have been through the residential schools, I was embarrassed—I was mortified—to be a Canadian. The terrible violations and sexual violence against tiny young girls. The man who took the platform with his support group and looked at the Commissioners and said, “I was eleven years old when they pulled my pants down. And I didn’t understand what was happening.” And I thought, in Canada? In my country? And then finally we have a Truth and Reconciliation Commission which looks at the residential schools, which draws necessary attention to the more than 1,000 missing and murdered Aboriginal women. And when they produce the report there isn’t a peep from the government. The Prime Minister sits in virtual silence. I don’t understand it. These aren’t issues which require ideological positions. We’re talking about First Nations. These are issues which should unite a Canadian response. And I am completely bewildered by the failure to respond urgently and effectively. And you’re going to have to forgive me for this, but I’m just too damned old and I’m going to have to say it: I regard it as racism. Pure and explicit. Unadorned. No question.
And I’m therefore proud to be speaking from traditional aboriginal lands. And so, so proud to be a part of Royal Roads. Extremely gratified and honoured by the honorary degree. And although I have imposed on you unduly around time, I want to thank you more than I can possibly summon. Thank you.
I had written down some notes, but I discarded those notes when I listened to two mentors, whom I love and admire and respect deeply, speak before me. The first is Sisonke Msimang who spoke at the reception. Sisonke has directed the Open Society Foundation in Southern Africa for many years as the premiere grant-making facility around issues of women and human rights. She talked about incandescent rage... which I feel from time to time. That, of course, is my diminution of the truth. I am sustained by incandescent rage, continually. And Theo Sowa – with whom I’ve had the privilege of collaborating lo these many years – talked about patience. And although in a way it’s an unlikely juxtaposition of the rage on the one hand and the patience on the other, that’s what I’d like to try to link for you tonight.
The rage flows, quite simply, from this: When President Obama and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said last year that we might be on the threshold of an AIDS-free generation, everyone applauded extravagantly at the hope that was implicit in that phrase. But we’re a long way from getting there. There are 34 million people infected with the virus today. And only 7-8 million of them are in treatment. And yet treatment is undoubtedly the way in which to contain this pandemic. We are moving so incrementally as to be heart-breaking in terms of the numbers that must be reached.
Central to that heartbreak is the fact that of the 24 million people living with the virus in sub-Saharan Africa, 60% of them are women. Among 15-24 year-olds, meanwhile, up to 75% of those infected are women and girls. And I want to tell you – based on some direct experience in the field – that women are the least adequately responded-to cohort in the entire pandemic.
I tried very hard when I was the UN’s envoy for HIV and AIDS in Africa to change that equation. I failed. I failed in significant measure because gender inequality that oppresses the lives women lead is driven by so much indifference and acidity and misogyny that it is a constant struggle to turn this world around. Women are fighting stigma and fighting discrimination and fighting for their place in their families. We’re now paying more attention to the so-called high-risk groups—the targeted groups—than we are to women. It’s right that we should be paying attention to the targeted groups: men who have sex with men, sex workers, injection drug users, prison populations, migrant populations. It’s absolutely appropriate and justified and important. But there’s something so out of whack and out of kilter that the energy and direction is towards the high-risk groups as though women were some kind of marginalized addendum. And the one area on which we are now focused on women internationally is when they are pregnant and HIV-positive—forming a very small portion of HIV-positive women, of course. And we put them on drugs in order to prevent the children from being born HIV-positive. And recently the world was so self-conscious—the leadership in the AIDS battle—was so self-conscious about the way in which they were focused on saving the lives of children and the women were relatively inconsequential to be sacrificed, they then added the phrase “and to keep the mothers alive.”
We’re keeping mothers alive with greater availability of antiretroviral drugs. But there are still large numbers of children being born HIV-positive. What is interesting in that regard is that pediatric AIDS is still very much with us and we don’t even have the drugs yet to deal with children between birth and the age of three. Those pharmaceutical formulations are only now underway. It’s incredible when you think of it. Over 300,000 HIV-positive children are being born every year—50% of them die before the age of two; 80% of them die before the age of five—and we’re only now beginning to construct the formulations. And their mothers – and women throughout the range of the pandemic – have never been adequately responded to. And this is where patience comes in. I listened to Theo’s thoughts and I wish there were a thousand Theos. And the question no one ever answers is: Why isn’t patience at the decision-making tables? Why don’t the women of Africa grow who so magnificently cope and have so much resilience, fighting this pandemic against all the odds—against overwhelming adversity—with such strength of character and purpose and resolve... Why aren’t they at the tables? Why aren’t they on the panels? Why aren’t they at the Commissions? That’s the question that’s never answered.
If you think I exaggerate, last December the Harvard School of Public Health held a conference called “AIDS at 30.” And they set up a Global Advisory Council in order to establish the agenda before the meeting. And they were very proud of their Global Advisory Council. It had 21 people on it: 19 men and two women. They just never learn... As recently as the International AIDS Conference last July, the most notable session that was held was held under the egress of the President of the World Bank, Jim Kim – another otherwise decent and able fellow, I’m very fond of him – but there he was in the World Bank’s offices, presiding over a panel which was to discuss the future responses to HIV and AIDS. It was so impressive and self-enhancing that it was piped into the largest conference room in the Washington Conference Centre. And they had 11 eminent panelists to discuss the future of the pandemic: 11 men. You’ve got to ask yourself: What in God’s name possesses these people? Do they not understand the nature of the pandemic? And that’s fundamentally what we’re fighting. And that’s what does most damage: This constant consignment of the women who know whereof they speak, who have the knowledge to the margins.
And that’s what I love about the Foundation. I’m the Chair of the Board. I’m so nominal it’s embarrassing. It’s almost furtive. I flit in and out of the Foundation, hoping not to be recognized lest they believe I have a place to fill. And the beauty of the Foundation is that it’s working at the Grassroots—it’s working at the community level. It’s opening the doors for the [women] to emerge and take hold of the agenda. And that is of tremendous importance. And the Foundation doesn’t avoid the more difficult and contentious issues. What Thandi [Newton] talked about in the Congo is absolutely right. That terrible pandemic of rape has ravaged the lives of women beyond endurance. And what did the Foundation do? It set up a special institute for the response to sexual violence—for the prevention of sexual violence. A group of women drawn from around the continent who move from place to place, doing therapeutic interventions and helping with the response where the contagion of sexual violence and rape is most palpable. Or when we need to give strength to home-based care workers, the Foundation has brought home-based care workers together from all over the continent and actually believes that they should be paid—a fascinating insight into the lives that women lead, because of course virtually all home-based care workers are women. And then, of course, there is the Grandmothers Movement, which again came from Ilana—directly and fully from Ilana. And that has become a social movement. I can’t get over it: the relationship between the Canadian grandmothers and the African grandmothers... and the tremendous solidarity and the sense of reliance and the understanding which is shared. It’s so much more insightful, knowledgeable, and authentic than all of these cerebral hotshots who occupy the palatial suites in the multinational institutions. And the great institutions like the Global Fund for AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria are, at the moment, letting us down for lack of funding. So how do we reverse that? We reverse it at community level. We reverse it at the Grassroots. That’s where the change happens. That’s where the resilience resides. And those women—those magnificent women—they have so much more to offer than those who make the decisions for them.
I have two final thoughts: One of the beauties of the Foundation is that it never wastes time. The decisions are not made by the Board every six months, but the decisions are made by the staff who can respond to a crisis quickly, can move the resources which are contributed quickly, and can do it without all of the endless bureaucratic and administrative blabber which haunts so many of the Foundations that would otherwise be doing first-rate work. And the second thing I love about the Foundation – and I watch it with intense joy and admiration – is the respect the Foundation has for the projects on the ground. This is not an equation – believe me – of donors and recipients. This is an equation which exists within a family where people embrace each other, love each other, respect each other, and recognize that the knowledge which is on the ground necessarily has to sustain the work that is done. And it’s that intense and remarkable dimension of the Foundation’s work which I summon tonight because in truth it brings to the women of Africa another range of support and focus which they so strongly deserve. And therefore when you come here as you have done in such extraordinary numbers, and you’re here for Hope Rising! I want to say to you, I feel both a part of it and separate from it, but the Stephen Lewis Foundation—and I’m embarrassed that it bears my name—it actually deserves your support. They do magnificent work.
The Power of Advocacy: Fighting for Social Justice
May 23, 2012
Appel Salon, Toronto, Canada
June was a very good friend, an extraordinary talent, and a force of nature—but a force for social change as well, with this abiding commitment to human decency, surrounded by a kind of unflagging activism and principle. It’s reflected in so many ways... In that tremendous journalistic legacy and the books that were written and all of the television shows that were hosted, but of course it’s also reflected in the deeply tangible reality of Jessie’s – now the June Callwood Centre for Young Women – manifesting what was so important to June in her life. It’s reflected in Nellie’s, which is a comfort for women who have suffered oppression from violence, from poverty, and from homelessness. And of course there’s the memorable and existing Casey House, which I’ve been fortunate enough to view and to know a little about because of the relationship to AIDS—a home that began as a hospice, but as things improved along the way is now engaging with the community in remarkable fashion. So everything comes together in this astonishing, collective legacy which June left behind. And I am truly honoured to be a part of things tonight.
The beauty that suffused everything that June did was the beauty and power of advocacy which was tenacious and indefatigable, and therefore to be able to speak under the title of the ‘Power of Advocacy’ gives me pleasure. But I want to do something tonight that I’ve never before done from such a platform. And I feel very self-conscious about it. And I probably wouldn’t have the courage to do it if my wife Michele wasn’t sitting in the front row and radiating courage so that I am gently levitating although you may not have noted it. I want to tell you about what I am now doing, because it speaks to advocacy—I think it speaks to the power of advocacy—but I beg you, in advance, not to see it as an indulgence in egocentricity. I just want to convey to you what I think are some important social justice issues.
I love the Stephen Lewis Foundation. I’m embarrassed that it bears my name. I was extremely unsettled when it was suggested at the outset and I remember phoning David Suzuki to ask him whether or not I should call it the Stephen Lewis Foundation and he said to me (I’m quoting) “It worked for me, Stephen. I don’t see why it shouldn’t work for you.” So I love the Foundation and the work it does. In fact, it speaks to the almost supernatural generosity of Canadians that the Foundation has raised something in the vicinity of $70-$75 million dollars over the course of the last seven or eight years, and dispersed the vast majority of that money to the grassroots community projects—supporting, at any given time, 150-170 projects in 15 countries where AIDS has eviscerated society, community and family. I love what they do and our older daughter Ilana is the Executive Director, and the Grandmothers Campaign – which has captured the imagination of Canada – was her idea, and the excellent staff of the Foundation run it. We who are the Board of Directors are purely nominal. I mean we are so marginal as to be peripheral. We’re so peripheral as to be marginal. We are – by and large – inconsequential. And the Foundation is run by the staff and they do a lovely job. But the Foundation is a classic programme organization, doing food, clothing, shelter, school fees, grandmothers, health, housing. And I’ve lived a life – like Olivia [Chow], like Michele [Landsberg] – of advocacy. That is what grips me. I never want to spend time without attempting to achieve social justice and equality.
So when I finished the work as UN envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, along with a number of colleagues, I truly wanted to maintain the advocacy dimension of that activity. And along with the colleague with whom I’d worked most closely – a woman named Paula Donovan who lives in Boston – we co-founded and co-direct an organization called AIDS Free World. My Executive Assistant and closest colleague Christina McGill is with me here tonight and works closely with me at AIDS Free World. AIDS Free World is quite distinct from the Foundation, but it deals often with the same issues. So when we created this back in 2006/early 2007, let me tell you the things we’ve engaged in to give you a sense of the power of advocacy.
Around the year 2005/2006 – number one – we put forward the idea of the United Nations requiring a new international agency for women. The history of the United Nations in dealing with gender was utterly lamentable. Everybody knew it, but no progress was being made on the front of providing equality for women around the world. It was paltry progress; it was incremental progress; it was insufferably slow. And we desperately wanted to turn things around. And in fact the idea of an international agency was Paula’s idea. And we began to push it forward... I remember including strong reference to it in the Massey Lectures in 2005 and then something happened which was really very interesting—the way things come together in this world. Kofi Annan – then Secretary General of the United Nations – in 2006, said that he was offended by the imbalance in the various boards and commissions that were launched by the United Nations, and from now on he was going to have equal numbers of men and women on all commissions and eminent bodies. And then two weeks later, he appointed something called the “High Level Panel on System-Wide Coherence” in the United Nations with 12 men and three women—a new definition of equality, to which the United Nations is regularly addicted. If you don’t think so, then let me tell you that just a few months ago the present Secretary General of the United Nations appointed a 19-person panel at the highest conceivable levels of public prominence to deal with the distribution of the funds that were being granted to counter climate change in developing countries. They expected to achieve 100 billion dollars, and they wanted to discuss its distribution and there were 19 members on the panel: 19 men. So if you think that these things are accidental or that they learn, there is such an obstructive gene in the cerebrum of these nitwits that I can barely stand it.
So we decided we would fight for a new international agency for women and along came this new international panel on system-wide coherence and we decided that was the moment to strike and we began to say publicly – as AIDS Free World – as this vigorous and aggressive and principled and uncompromising group of 10 or 11 people working virtually (San Francisco, Boston, New York, Toronto, Jamaica) – we settled in and began to make the point publicly that it was crazy to be looking at the panorama of activity within the United Nations without having some focus on gender. And gender was not on the agenda at the time. And the advocacy consisted of writing. Paula wrote a searing tract called “Gender Equality: Now or Never,” analysing the activities of the UN and I began making contact with every single one of the 15 members on the high level panel. And when I hadn’t met them personally (I was lucky enough to know a number of them) I used intermediaries. I didn’t know the representative from Japan—I got in touch with Mrs. Ogata who had just been head of the United Nations Commission on Refugees. I couldn’t reach the Prime Minister of Norway; he was constantly elusive—I got hold of Gro Harlem Brundtland, the previous Prime Minister of Norway, and made sure the position was put. We turned up everywhere and gradually – and this was of course of ultimate significance – a great many women’s groups came to the struggle. And all around the world, at some point, significantly eclipsing our own small interventions, there came this determined effort to get a women’s agency. And everybody laughed at us. The idea that the United Nations would create a new agency more than sixty years after it was founded was ludicrous. But the panel was lobbied into the ground. And lo and behold – to everyone’s astonishment – the panel, which didn’t even have it on its agenda, said there should be an international agency for women. And then (that was in about 2008/2009) then there began the process of attempting to lobby governments to embrace the recommendation that had been made. And that meant seeing every single ambassador from various countries, to the United Nations, persuading them of the legitimacy, getting them to write their capitals, keeping the pressure on. The point about advocacy is that you make your point and then tenaciously you never stop lobbying. You drive them mercilessly until they capitulate just to get rid of you. And by and large it works. It certainly works in election campaigns when you’re knocking on doors and people say: “Oh for God’s sake I’ll vote for you. Just leave us alone.” So it was an interesting process and we came to the crunch... when the discussion ranged over who would head this new agency—who would be the Undersecretary General. And a number of perfectly reasonable, but basically non-descript candidates were put forward and then suddenly—my God it was good fortune—along came the former president of Chile, Michelle Bachelet: a wonderful, socialist feminist, who said that having retired from political life (she had served one term and was not permitted to serve more than one) she would take on the role of Undersecretary General. So now it was last February 24th I remember I was sitting in the General Assembly of the United Nations and I have to say I was choked up; I was so excited. Because you know we have an agency for children (UNICEF) we have an agency for food, we have an agency for labour, we have an agency for health, we have an agency for AIDS, we have an agency for everything except for 50% of the world’s population. And it felt so good to break through and it was important to us from the HIV/AIDS point of view because obviously if you put a strong agency together with women on the ground then the possibilities of doing something around AIDS by which women are disproportionately affected and from which they’re disproportionately infected would make a great difference.
So on February 24th last year, UN Women – as it’s called – came to life. They call it UN Women because they are tremendously creative in the choice of appellations. And now they have between two and three hundred million dollars this year. We’re moving towards a billion dollars a year in 2015... and women all over the world in developing countries who’ve never had voice or resources will suddenly have some of both and it is just exhilarating to think of what you can achieve just by being damnably tenacious about it when you’ve got a good idea for social justice.
The second thing that we then moved into as a group occurred in 2008 when we were at the International AIDS Conference in Mexico City. And a fascinating little NGO called the Girl Child network in Zimbabwe came to us and begged us to intervene because in the elections in Zimbabwe in 2008 – one of which was held March, one of which was held in June – between the elections, Mugabe had unleashed his youth core and his war veterans to rape women solely and exclusively because they supported the opposition party. There was no other rationale. And the raping was extensive and terrifying. And they said to us: We know you’ll take it on. We don’t want to do this in a casual way with one news story or one press conference. We want to do it more seriously. Can you suggest what we should do? And we got together and agreed that in this instance we would actually go in and take affidavits. We would find the women who had been raped and take affidavits and assemble a dossier which we felt would undoubtedly amount to crimes against humanity and then see if we could get some of Mugabe’s thugs and colleagues before the courts in South Africa, because they’re constantly coming into South Africa and I’ll explain that in a moment. There is a vehicle through which you can prosecute in another country. (Just as we prosecute Rwandan war criminals because we have something called universal jurisdiction which means that we have domesticated the international criminal court statute—we have brought it into Canada and made it applicable here if we choose to pursue the legislation.) So South Africa is the one country in Africa that has done that.
So we got two very distinguished law firms – one Canadian and one American – and we made six separate trips to Africa: to Botswana and South Africa. We secreted the women out of Zimbabwe, and we took the affidavits of over 70 women. We could have taken many more, but we had a panorama of representative sexual violence from across the country. And the patterns were absolutely repetitive everywhere. Gangs of young thugs raising clubs would gather outside a home. They’d chant, they’d cheer, they’d sing. They’d break into the home. They would either kill or beat the partner. They would rape the woman in the presence of her children. They would rape some of the young girls. They would take the woman to literally a rape camp and keep her there for two or three weeks, applying gang rapes on a continuing basis. They screamed abuse at the women. They said things like, “Tell this to Tony Blair.” “Tell this to George Bush.” They actually were that specific. And in every single instance, the women were organizers for the opposition party, or married to organizers or candidates for the opposition party, or activists in the opposition party. It was all opposition-related. And we felt we had indeed compiled a dossier that we could pursue under crimes against humanity.
The women were destroyed. The raping was so foul and so brutal and so savage – politically-orchestrated rape – that it is beyond the telling. And we were absolutely determined to do something because the women would say to us, “We want justice. That’s all we have left. We want justice.”
It’s very hard to get justice in the slow-moving apparatus of the courts, particularly when you have a country like South Africa, which for the longest time indeed even today – is resistant to moving in on Mugabe because of the crazy relationships that exist among some of the countries. (Although there’s more and more impatience with Mugabe and his behaviour in Zimbabwe and the way in which he has destroyed the country.) But we decided to pursue this in a very serious manner. So we took our dossier before the leading lawyer dealing with what is called the National Prosecuting Authority in South Africa – the NPA – to which such submissions are made. And we took it to the lawyer and he said, “You’ve got an unassailable case; by all means pursue it.” But the National Prosecuting Authority wouldn’t hear it and we decided we should take it (this was back in 2009) because another case against Mugabe involving torture had been brought to the National Prosecuting Authority in South Africa and they had refused to hear it and it was under appeal and it was taking forever because there was government intervention and there was police obstruction and the National Prosecuting Authority internally was divided... but you hang in, because you’ve got to get justice for those women. I just can’t describe the women to you. The affidavits sometimes took seven or eight hours. We put it all together in a report. If you go to the website – aidsfreeworld.org – you’ll find it. We called it “Sexual Terror in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.” And I think that what happened to the women was almost indescribable. So we decided we would never give up. And I want to tell you, it’s just so interesting that this week the high court of Johannesburg to whom the appeal had been made, rendered a verdict in the torture case against the National Prosecuting Authority. It’s a hundred page decision – a most extraordinarily unequivocal decision – saying that the police, the government of South Africa, and the National Prosecuting Authority itself had failed to execute the legislation that existed. We know that’ll be appealed again to the Supreme Court in South Africa, and after that to the Constitutional Court in South Africa. But now that we have a case which the National Prosecuting Authority has lost, we will very carefully and quickly submit our own case on rape in Zimbabwe. We know now we’re part of the mix. We will submit an amicus brief to the higher levels when the torture case proceeds. It just feels like – by God – we’re not going to let some of them off the hook. That when they venture – these corroborators and predators and rapists whose names we know – that when they venture into South Africa, it will be possible to bring them before a court of law. It’ll take another year or two, but it just doesn’t matter; we’re going to give those women a sense of justice.
And then after Zimbabwe, we got pulled into the Congo, which is without question the worst place in the world for women—where, since 1994 after the Rwandan genocide, multiple militias have wandered through the Congo, creating havoc and engaging in patterns of sexual violence which are absolutely a nightmare. There was one report at one point just last year of a thousand women being raped every day in the Eastern region of the Congo. And I’ve visited the Eastern region and spent time in the Congo and in the Eastern region in the south Kivu part of the region there is a little capital called Bukavu. And in Bukavu there is a little hospital called the Panzi Hospital, headed by an astonishingly gifted and principled surgeon whose name is Denis Mukwege. And he and his colleague surgeons – few in number – spend a good part of their time surgically repairing the reproductive tracts of the women. And it’s just terrifying to think that this is a pattern. And although the International Criminal Court – as you may have read – finally found guilty a leader of one of the worst militias, he was found guilty and had been indicted of crimes against humanity around child soldiers. They found it difficult to prove the rapes because women will not come forward when they have been raped. So then we went to Kenya and to Liberia to begin to try to understand why wouldn’t women come forward so that you can prosecute the rapist and begin to overcome the culture of impunity. And in Kenya, which had a terrible outbreak of sexual violence after their elections in 2007/2008, we met with 20 or 30 women’s groups, all of whom said, “We’d like to start the process of getting the rapists before the courts so you could change the culture of impunity and give women a sense of some justice that we could break this pattern of congenital, endemic raping—whether pre-conflict, or post-conflict, or politically-orchestrated, or generally within the society.” And there we started talking to them about safe houses... about women coming forward and witnesses coming forward and having safe houses which would allow the prosecution to proceed. And then we went to Liberia, where we had the first ever woman president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf who, shortly after she was president, created a rape court—the first in Africa. Because the raping – you just read about the indictment of George Taylor, who will be sentenced later this month – the raping that occurred during the civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone was just ghastly. And Ellen Johnson Sirleaf wanted to send a message so she set up a separate court and not many women are coming forward to the court. And it’s particularly appalling in Liberia because after the civil conflict was over, the raping continued, but it was focused on young girls between the ages of eight and twelve.
I visited with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. We had, for two years, served together on a panel investigating the genocide in Rwanda so we were friends. And I said to her, “As president, Ellen, what are you going to do about this?” And she said, “Stephen, I don’t know. I’m gathering together some of the best front-line women in the world on International Women’s Day and we’re going to try to find out how to handle it.” And gradually there emerged for us, from our work in Zimbabwe and the Congo and Kenya and Liberia, there emerged for us the need to answer the question: Why don’t the women report the rapes? And we put it under the rubric of: Know your epidemic of rape. And Paula, again, who has particular skill in these areas, drafted a fascinating prospectus which we’re using to raise some money because you see, it’s both fascinating and unnerving to recognize the reasons.
In Liberia, the reasons women weren’t coming forward were primarily because (A) the police didn’t have petrol for their motor scooters to go into the villages and collect evidence, or (B) the women didn’t want to go into Monrovia in case the trial lasted two days—where would they sleep overnight? They certainly had no money for however downtrodden the hotel. Or (C) what if you had a trial during the harvest period and the women are doing the harvest, how could they possibly go to a trial when they needed the food both for their families and for sale? And when we were in Kenya, it all had to do with the doctors who were not prepared to do an examination, or the police who would not give them woman the form she had to fill out in order to claim sexual violence. So everywhere you looked there was a cascading series of reasons which, were they to be confronted and overcome, might – I’m not being definitive about it – might open the door to actual trials and actual convictions, and begin to reduce the culture of impunity. So under that broad heading of ending the epidemic or knowing your epidemic of rape, we’re in the process of setting in place a research apparatus for six or eight sites in countries ranging from politically-orchestrated rape to the rape that occurs around extractive industries around mining sites... and see if we can find a way of breaking that monolith of obstruction that prevents women from getting justice.
I have to say – and I have been influenced so hugely by Michele in this that I can’t say it strongly enough – I believe that the single most important struggle on the planet is the struggle for gender equality. Nothing comes close to it. And to watch the absence of gender equality destroying women’s lives is the most heartbreaking and unconscionable and insufferable reality that I’ve witnessed.
And then the third thing that we then got involved in was something called the Mac AIDS Foundation came to us. You may know Mac AIDS. They sell the lipstick Viva Glam, which I hope all of you that apply lipstick will hereafter purchase. Every penny that Viva Glam raises goes to work on HIV and AIDS. And now that Lady Gaga has announced that she’s using Viva Glam, suddenly what began, when we started with Mac AIDS as a 12-13 million dollar/year proposition, has become a 60 million dollar a year proposition, I assume all purchased by Lady Gaga herself.
And I think it’s important to know that there are these idiosyncratic outfits out there that do good work. And so Mac AIDS came to us and said, “AIDS Free World, we know you’re small but you seem to be approachable and determined. Would you do something about homophobia in the Caribbean?” And they made of course the exact connection that the homophobia in the Caribbean drives men who have sex with men underground. They don’t get tested or treated, there’s no prevention, sex is furtive and anxious... and then you look at the rates of infection and they’re very high. In Jamaica, the rate of infection of HIV in the general population is 1.6%. In the gay male population, it’s 32%. So obviously something has to be done to overcome the intense anti-homosexuality of the society. So we decided to work on Jamaica first because, to be frank, I’ve never seen such a homophobic society.
I went to Jamaica and did a number of radio programmes and I felt relieved that I was leaving with my life in tact because it was so brutal. And we decided on a two-pronged strategy in our advocacy. One prong would be to deal with the culture—the prevailing social and cultural attitudes. And the second prong would be legal. And that would constitute an advocacy package. So we started softening up the culture. We started doing public service announcements, letters to the editor, debates with the fundamentalist right wing, demonstrations outside appropriate buildings, handing out of material, getting people to realize that we were fighting for tolerance in a society where a recent survey had shown that 80% of the population self-identified as homophobic. So that’s a fairly high mountain to climb. And we were determined and we kept at it. And we hired a remarkably talented gay lawyer in Jamaica named Maurice Tomlinson who has now established an international reputation and has been working now – not only in Jamaica – but they’re doing training on documentation and bringing evidence together in St. Lucia and Trinidad and Tobago and we’re supporting a cross-dressing case in Belize and doing some work in Guyana and it’s really fascinating, but Jamaica was the target.
And then we did something that gives me great pleasure: We launched the first ever case against the Jamaican anti-homosexuality law before the inter-American Commission on Human Rights. And if in fact it is heard (as seems to be the case) I think we will win and I think that will have significant reverberations across the Caribbean, let alone in terms of overturning the legislation in Jamaica. But then something happened which sort of took my breath away. There was an election in Jamaica in December. And the party in power and the prime minister had been extremely homophobic. In fact the prime minister on the British programme Hard Talk said under no circumstances would he ever have a gay man in his cabinet. Ever. Publicly. Unequivocally. So it was difficult under those circumstances...
But the woman who headed the official opposition at the time said publicly that she would allow a free vote on the sodomy laws as they’re called in Jamaica. And the last ten days of the campaign were consumed by a discussion of homosexuality. It was most extraordinary that a country’s electoral process would deal with an LGBT issue of that import. And everybody expected the opposition to be clobbered. And instead the government was routed and the opposition came to power. And it was very exciting. And it has often been said that the work which Maurice and others did in softening up the culture and attempting to change attitudes and working in all these fronts simultaneously helped to deliver a blow to the outgoing party which had—their attitudes around men who have sex with men and sex workers and injecting drug users—the attitudes were crypto-fascist, frankly. They were just absolutely unacceptable in every respect. So that felt extremely good.
So we have the women’s agency. We have sexual violence. We have questions of homophobia (which we’re now hoping to introduce that particular two-pronged strategy into some countries in Africa where the anti-homosexuality stuff is running riot). And then, number four is the question of disabilities.
One of the most upsetting things when I was the envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa is the people who would come to you—deaf, blind, wheelchair-bound, desperate for some protection because they were so vulnerable to sexual violence. And nobody responded. I mean they were on the margins of the margins. They were the vulnerable group who was always seen as expendable. And I have to say that I didn’t respond. To this day I can’t forgive myself. You know, I make the rationalization (and I suppose it has some legitimacy)... at the time we were so consumed by death everywhere. Everywhere you turned people were dying. Countries were graveyards. The only businesses that were flourishing were funeral parlours. It was just awful. So segmenting certain groups of the population and responding to them—I just didn’t get around to it. But when the envoy ended, my colleagues and I determined that by God, we would deal with this question of disabilities. So at the International AIDS Conference in Mexico in 2008, we had a townhall, bringing disabled people from around the world and a number of other people involved in AIDS and we managed to work on the intersection of AIDS and disabilities. We don’t assume that these changes will emancipate people in these situations. I mean if you get rid of the sodomy—the anti-homosexuality laws in Jamaica, that’s just the first step to creating a free and open society for LGBT populations. You’ve got to reach the stage where the president of the United States talks comfortably about gay marriage and then you know you’re making some progress—it takes time. But on disabilities we had a tremendous open forum. It was quite inspiringly moderated by a young fellow named Avi Lewis. (Nepotism in my family knows no limits.) And it made quite an impact. But what many people realized at the time is that there weren’t even ramps to get people onto the stage. You had to lift wheelchairs, or have been in wheelchairs speaking from the floor rather than the platform. And the sign language interpretation which had to be very sophisticated because the sign language is often different in Kenya, Mexico the United States—American sign language is not universal. So there was a lot of orchestration involved and we didn’t pull it off, but in Vienna in 2010 we had a couple of major sessions on AIDS and disability and had made tremendous advances – to the credit of the International AIDS Society – on all of the access questions. And then this year, at the International AIDS Conference in Washington, we’re going even further. We are having a whole-day session on the eve of the Conference, bringing in young disabled people for a whole-day session on advocacy... on how they can advance their own positions. We’re holding it at Gallaudet University for the Deaf which is a wonderful university in Washington and then the young, disabled people – men and women – will be integrated into the Conference itself in a way which gives them the kind of equal status that they haven’t had before. And these things, as I say, they always take time, but it is so refreshing when you make some progress.
And then finally on this side of things... AIDS Free World is an avowedly, unabashed, feminist organization. We work from a feminist analysis. We work most strongly around women and women’s issues. And we started to work on vertical transmission—that is the transmission of the virus from mother to child during pregnancy, birth or breastfeeding. And again my co-director and colleagues with her were aghast at the claims that were being made by the United Nations agencies and the inadequate nature of the responses, and the sometime reckless nature of the responses. So on three separate occasions now, we have backed the United Nations into a corner such that the WHO, UNAIDS, and UNICEF have had to withdraw initiatives they’ve taken because those initiatives imperilled the life of the mother of the child or the initiatives were poorly fashioned or designed or the initiatives required significant amendment before they could be applied. And I say that with some pride because nobody takes on the United Nations. You know, it’s sacrosanct. You dare not criticize the agencies. But we love taking on the agencies. We are experts in alienation. I think it’s probably fair to say that we don’t have a friend left in the entire UN system and – if possible, by the end – we won’t have a friend left on the planet. And we don’t care. But we are determined, when we see an issue, to engage in the advocacy that can make it surrender. And all of these areas are tremendously important because they involve human survival. And I’ve learned that one should never give up. You know, you wake up one morning as Jack [Layton] did and you have 103 seats. It’s phenomenal – when you are tenacious and determined and principled – what can happen as the pendulum swings. So I’m filled with kind of spirited enthusiasm about the struggles in this world. You get beaten up, you get bashed, and you lose many of them. But you grit your teeth and you keep on fighting. And it becomes perilous, ominous and deeply important that we mount the battle. I did want to give you a sense of the advocacy that I’m engaged in at the moment, but more important—the way in which advocacy can bring hope and life to people. The way in which it can be undaunted. The way in which, when principled and uncompromising, it can actual move things forward. And one should never be oppressed or depressed by the occasional defeat. Just be enlivened by it. When you’re defeated, grit your teeth and take it forward. Thank you for having me.
Remarks from Stephen Lewis on the Occasion of the First African Grandmothers' Gathering, May 6th-8th, 2010
May 07, 2010
The First African Grandmothers' Gathering, Swaziland
Your Majesty, the Queen Mother of Swaziland, the Honourable Prime Minister, the Honourable Deputy Prime Minister, and all other esteemed dignitaries here assembled, and above all, the grandmothers of Africa and Canada:
Your Majesty, the Queen Mother of Swaziland, the Honourable Prime Minister, the Honourable Deputy Prime Minister, and all other esteemed dignitaries here assembled, and above all, the grandmothers of Africa and Canada:
I can’t begin to express how sorry I am that I cannot be here with you today. I’ve looked forward to it for a very long time, but an unexpected minor illness has kept me at home. I threatened to put my doctors in jail if they didn’t give me permission to travel, but they prevailed in the end.
On the other hand, I’m very proud that Ilana is here to convey my remarks to you at the opening of this first-ever grandmother’s gathering in Africa.
Let me start with a small piece of history. One of the reasons I’m pleased Ilana is with you is that, back in 2006, she first raised with me the question of the grandmothers of Africa. She and her Foundation colleagues argued that more and more often, orphan children were being looked after by their African grandmothers, and yet, next to nothing was being done for the grandmothers themselves. From that innocent beginning there emerged, first, the astonishingly moving and successful grandmothers gathering at the outset of the International AIDS Conference in Toronto in 2006, followed by an explosion of solidarity between African and Canadian grandmothers, now growing irresistibly into a mass international social movement.
In the interim, we’ve learned a lot; the entire HIV/AIDS movement has learned a lot.
We’ve learned that African grandmothers are the backbone of the continent. We’ve learned that African grandmothers form the core of community-based care. We’ve learned that African grandmothers will sacrifice their very lives to protect and nurture their orphan grandchildren. We’ve learned that African grandmothers are generous beyond belief. We’ve learned that African grandmothers, in several countries, care for between forty and sixty per cent of all orphan children , amounting to several million in total. We’ve learned that Africa could not survive without its grandmothers.
If there were greater justice in the Nobel prize for peace, it would go not to President Obama, but to his paternal grandmother and all the other grandmothers of Africa who share the setbacks and the joys, the agonies and the raptures, the struggles and the hopes of their orphan grandchildren.
AIDS has cut a terrible swath through Africa. For some inexplicable reason, Africa was not prepared for the monumental numbers of orphans left behind. It is as though the death of parents somehow occurred in a vacuum, as though the children would somehow survive on their own.
But of course they couldn’t. And the community structures and the family structures were so devastated by the pandemic that children faced separation, isolation, child-headed households: it felt like abandonment.
But there then emerged --- suddenly, almost miraculously, magnificently --- one solid wall of protection, a wall so strong that it withstood all the misfortune heaped on the orphans of Africa. It was the wall of grandmothers. You couldn’t penetrate it. You couldn’t destroy it. It stands today as the protective embrace for the orphan children of the continent.
You know that protective embrace in Swaziland. This country has suffered more from AIDS than any other country in Southern Africa. I visited Swaziland a number of times when I was the United Nations Envoy --- in fact, I remember the occasion when I spoke to the members of the public service of Swaziland, at a meeting here in Manzani, and noted, on that occasion, that Swaziland had surpassed Botswana and had the highest AIDS prevalence rate in all of Africa.
You can imagine the challenge for the Government. You can imagine the challenge for NERCHA. There’s no greater challenge on the continent. It’s a tremendous tribute to the country that it continues to fight the virus with such extraordinary determination. All of us want Swaziland to win this fight. You have lost far too many of your men, women and children, with the women and children remaining most grievously at risk.
But you have enormous strengths. And one of those strengths is the organization responsible for bringing this incredible grandmothers gathering together … the organization we all know and admire: Swaziland For Positive Living, or SWAPOL.
I want to tell you that of all the civil society organizations of People Living With AIDS, SWAPOL ranks amongst the top two or three in all of Africa. It’s uncompromising and it’s principled. Sometimes the Government gets mad at it; sometimes NERCHA gets mad at it; sometimes even I lose patience with it. But the phenomenal strength of SWAPOL lies in its refusal to be taken off track, its absolute dedication to its members and to the cause for which it exists: turning the tide of AIDS in Swaziland.
So I want you to allow me for a moment to pay tribute to its leader: Siphiwe Hlophe. And I must start with a confession, a confession in the presence of my daughter, my grandsons, the Canadian grandmothers and my wonderful associates at the Stephen Lewis Foundation. I love Siphiwe. I’m crazy about her. I have a crush on her. If I were here now, I’d grab Siphiwe and swirl her around in the air (well, maybe that’s not quite accurate … it’s probably closer to the truth to say that Siphiwe would swirl me around in the air), but whoever’s doing the swirling, the fact of the matter is that Siphiwe is a giant in the battle against AIDS.
And you see it all around you. This gathering would not be possible without her. Never underestimate Siphiwe. She now rubs shoulders with Presidents and leaders of the United Nations. She’s one of the most sought-after speakers at the International AIDS Conference in Vienna this July. She has become a force of nature. Personally, I’m jealous: I used to be a force of nature and now my position has been usurped by Siphiwe. Still, please believe me when I say that the Stephen Lewis Foundation is immensely proud to support SWAPOL, and to have worked in partnership to support this historic Gathering.
Just think of what’s happening: grandmothers from fourteen nations; representatives from activist women’s groups fighting for gender equality; associations of People Living With AIDS; an intense day of meetings tomorrow, organized by the grandmothers, to hammer out a mandate, a strategy to take us forward; and with it an all-consuming focus on what must be done for the orphans and grandmothers of Africa.
We’ve entered a tough time in the annals of AIDS. Donor governments are cutting back, both the Global Fund and PEPFAR are short on money, second-line drugs are often too expensive for governments to afford … uneasy days lie ahead. This year, 2010, was supposed to be the year of universal access to treatment, prevention and care. We’re nowhere near those goals in any respect.
Given all of that, the best strategy would seem to be to focus determinedly on community-based, grass-roots work. And that brings us back to the grandmothers: they are the community.
I hope this gathering is a remarkable success. And then one day we can do it again. But I want to say to you, in closing, that all of the Canadian grandmothers, represented by the fine women from Canada here today, will be with the African grandmothers every step of the way, as will the Stephen Lewis Foundation. It’s an honour and a privilege to stand with you, and to be at your side as you rescue and feed and clothe and shelter and educate and heal and love an entire generation of children whose lives would otherwise be fractured and lost.
Grandmothers of Africa, we love you, we honour you, and we salute you.