Stephen Lewis listened as 25 United Nations representatives talked about their interventions on the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Two hours passed and not once did he hear the word “woman.”
It was at that conference table in Mozambique that Stephen, then UN Special Envoy on HIV/AIDS in Africa, had a revelation: he’d long believed that the single most important struggle on the planet was the struggle for gender equality, but he realized that gender inequality was making HIV impossible to defeat.
“The marginalization of 50 percent of the world’s people absolutely subverts, sabotages, and violates every principle of social justice and every principle of equality,” said Stephen.
A Generosity of Spirit
During his time with the UN, he noted an unnerving pattern of UN agencies leaving women out of the conversation. He was aggravated by the failure of UN agencies to collectively respond in a timely manner to atrocities, such as the sexual carnage in the Congo. However, he drew great inspiration from African women.
“What inspires me then and what inspires me now, is the tremendous resilience and strength on the ground in Africa, particularly amongst the women,” Stephen reflected. “There is such intelligence, such sophistication, such human decency, such generosity of spirit in the response of Africa’s women to HIV.”
Diminish Funds, Damage Women
While Stephen witnesses the invaluable impact of courageous women, he also sees strong ties between money and equality. He knows what happens when there is no money for women’s organizations.
“If you’re starving organizations whose primary mandate is to ease or save the lives of women, you are directly damaging women,” he said.
Stephen counts on organizations like Global Fund for Women to support projects that are vital in the struggle for women’s rights.
“Global Fund for Women has integrity, has principle, can be relied on, and is deeply committed to women’s rights and women’s causes. It’s a damn shame that they don’t have more money to distribute,” said Stephen.
A Self-Proclaimed Feminist
A self-proclaimed feminist, Stephen credits three women as his inspirations: his wife and feminist activist, Michele Landsberg, his AIDS-Free World co-director, Paula Donovan, and cherished friend and “force of nature,” Eve Ensler.
Stephen is a Canadian whose international work began by accident. Politically, he was a social democrat who was ultimately appointed to the UN by a strong social conservative. His role allowed him to see the various United Nations agencies up-close. One of those agencies was UNICEF, where he was later named deputy executive director.
In 2001, Kofi Annan asked Stephen to take on a new role: UN Special Envoy on HIV/AIDS in Africa. There, he worked with a determined group of activists, one of whom was Paula Donovan. Paula was intimately familiar with the pandemic and when Stephen left the UN in 2006, the two decided to co-found, and now co-direct, AIDS-Free World.
Don’t Give Up!
In addition to his primary focus, co-directing AIDS-Free World, and sitting on the board of the foundation that bears his name, he teaches a course at Ryerson University in Toronto where he tries to impart the following wisdom on young activists:
“Don’t give up! Don’t be pummeled into submission by conventional wisdom! Don’t capitulate because men have the power and do stupid things with it. The most important thing for men to do is to respect the rights of women. As hopeless as it seems at times, if women can somehow manage to grit their teeth and keep on fighting, eventually the pendulum will swing. It takes a lot of time and it’s incredibly frustrating, but if you keep at it, you can achieve great things.”