If the audience of nearly 600 people filling the Hall building auditorium Monday night was to take only one thing away from his lecture, humanitarian Stephen Lewis urged it to be this: gender inequality is fueling the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and it is the women who are shouldering most of the burden.
“The feminist analysis has been right all along,” Lewis said. “The unwillingness of men to relinquish power and authority is the heartland of the problems of women around the world.”
Lewis, the former United Nations Special Envoy on HIV/AIDS to Africa, described his experience at a Mozambique hospital, where close to 90 women suffering from HIV/AIDS-related illnesses were crammed into a ward with only 54 beds.
“[Women] were lying on the concrete floor,” he said “There was such a stench and sense of misery and death. The women are so disproportionately affected.”
Lewis’s frustration was apparent when he described the fact that it will take many generations to change male sexual behavior, while in the meantime, women are dying today.
In fact, of the estimated 37.2 million adults living with HIV/AIDS in 2006, 48 per cent were women. In sub-Saharan Africa during the same year, women represented 59 per cent of those living with HIV/AIDS.
Lewis explained that these statistics were caused primarily by discriminatory gender roles, lack of adequate sex education and the difficult access to preventative measures such as condoms and microbicides.
“I thought I understood the world, but I don’t understand it at all. I don’t understand how you can abandon millions of people. I don’t understand why scores of people are regarded as disposable, expendable, inconsequential.,” he said.
Lewis said that it has become increasingly difficult to rally the Western world around the plight of Africans affected by HIV/AIDS. This Western ignorance, he explained, can be linked to one major American concern: Iraq.
The ongoing conflict in Iraq is “a kind of obsessive preoccupation of commentators and the media everywhere,” he said. “It’s a moment historically which is enormously unsettling because you can’t get the attention of the world focused on other serious and engaging matters.”
Lewis highlighted the fact that nearly $10 billion is being spent, per month, on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In an entire year, this amount of money wouldn’t be spent in the fight against HIV/AIDS, he said.
In addition, with the Democrats now taking control of both the American Senate and House of Representatives, some believed additional HIV/AIDS support would be imminent. But according to Lewis, the Democrats have “recoiled from matters of principle” and have failed to act, thus placing everything for Africa in jeopardy, he said.
Having closely examined the African continent for the past 20 years, Lewis has seen situations of violence, genocide and unwarranted death first-hand. It is through his personal experiences that Lewis sees what he described as an “unacknowledged, subterranean racism” – causing Western super-powers to turn a blind eye to the plight of Africans.
“The world can’t bring itself to intervene. If a state cannot protect the human rights of its citizens, the international community has a responsibility to protect them,” he said.
Lewis described the incidents pertaining to Rwanda, Armenia, Darfur and the Holocaust as examples of periods when the promise that “never” again would such staggering levels of devastation and death take place was made – and broken.
“This bloody world, because of the lack of courage and principle on the part of the major powers, always lets it happen over and over again. We’ve rendered the words ‘never again’ obsolete,” he said.
Lewis said Western countries must be prepared to not only provide Africa with resources, but to do so on a continuous basis. To date, however, most countries have failed to deliver on their promises and commitments, and have ultimately “raised not a finger,” Lewis said.
“I’ve always believed that when one part of the human family is under siege, the privileged part of the human family – our part – responds. There is nothing more noble in this world than to respond to the brutalization of the human condition,” he said.
One such example of failed promises is the Millennium Development Goals, unanimously agreed upon by countries around the world. These eight goals include, among others, granting children access to elementary school education and forging a partnership between the developed and developing world.
“We now realized that on the continent of Africa, none of the Millennium Development Goals will be reached,” Lewis said.
Still, Lewis urged the university community to act and push for change by writing letters to parliamentarians, attending all-candidate election meetings, signing petitions and conducting demonstrations. The strength of numbers and the willingness to get involved are what, Lewis explained, will allow university students to further the HIV/AIDS cause.
“Why are we on this planet if not to pursue social justice and equality?” he asked. “You have the whole world to conquer, and I beg you to do so.”