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Stephen Lewis: Opening Remarks at the Women Moving Millions Summit, "The Power of Purpose"

Women Moving Millions Summit: "The Power of Purpose"
September 17, 2015
New York

I feel very privileged to be given this opportunity, and I shall speak with supernatural rapidity in order to cover a great deal of ground in thirteen minutes.

As you know, I’m a Canadian. My country is currently embroiled in a fateful election campaign. One of the critical issues is a demand for a Commission of Inquiry into more than twelve hundred missing and murdered Aboriginal women.

There is no question that the great majority of the women were sexually brutalized before they were murdered. Every major Aboriginal group in the country, plus a vast array of NGOs and both major opposition parties want the Inquiry. The Government says no. It’s an ugly, toxic reaction, rooted in misogyny and racism.

Fast forward. This morning, I attended a meeting at the United Nations convened by the Secretary-General himself. It was urgent; almost frantic. It was part of a desperate damage control operation to address the shocking reality of sexual violence committed by United Nations peacekeepers, preying on the civilian population they are mandated to protect.

Over the last five months it has been revealed that at the highest levels of the United Nations, there was a willful cover-up of sexual exploitation and abuse that had occurred, particularly in the Central African Republic, in the rapes of young boys and girls, by peacekeepers, some non-UN, some UN, but peacekeepers all.

It then emerged that the pattern was systemic. The world has been lied to, information has been suppressed, horrific things have been done to women and girls in a number of countries where peacekeepers operate, and we’ve received nothing but distortions, evasions and prevarications. It’s appalling. And the revelations were so damaging in the last few months that Ban Ki-Moon was forced to establish an Independent, External Review Panel, chaired by a former Canadian Supreme Court judge with a deserved reputation for ferocious integrity, to review the entire domain of sexual exploitation and abuse and make recommendations. Her report is due in November.

Now why is this so important? Well, here we are in New York, the throne of political and economic power, with the United Nations ensconced as the embodiment of multilateralism. And however reluctant you may be to believe it, the United Nations is the ultimate standard-bearer for the battle against sexual violence. Whether it’s the unspeakable, barbaric atrocities of ISIS, or rape as a strategy of war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or peacekeepers run amuck from Haiti to Liberia to the Balkans, many of whom, incredibly enough, are protected by immunity, or marital rape in Pakistan, or gang rape in South Africa, or the sexual assaults on Aboriginal women in Canada, or football teams assaulting women in the United States, or simply the world-wide pandemic of sexual brutality against women that seems to have no end … that is understandably, so seldom reported, that is rarely prosecuted even in the most sophisticated of societies where the pretense of gender equality exists, the United Nations, with constant access to 193 countries in the world, is obligated to set the norms to protect and secure the human rights of women.

But the failure to do so is staggering. It has an agency called UN Women, it has a Human Rights Council in Geneva, it has Security Council resolutions in endless profusion, drenched in hypocrisy about protecting women from violence, it has a Secretary-General’s Special Representative on sexual violence in conflict, it has a children’s agency called UNICEF charged with the protection of children from sexual violence, it has an avalanche of General Assembly resolutions that enshrine the sanctity of women’s lives, confronting every iniquity from child marriage to international sexual trafficking, it has an International Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination against women, ratified by 189 countries, and it is all, overwhelmingly inadequate, insufficient, desolate, infuriating.

Throughout the panorama of alleged good intentions, there endlessly surfaces the voice of Ban Ki-moon, as was the case this morning, uttering rhetorical banalities, year after year, as things get worse, a man who has not the slightest idea of the importance of gender except in the words put before him by his spin-doctor miscreants. And it’s fatal; fatal to women. The rhetoric becomes the policy, the excuse, the evidence of how hard they’re all trying, when they’re trying not at all. I’m not purposely disrespectful; I’ve just run out of patience.

For me, the failure of this centrepiece of the international community, is a truly abysmal comment on the men who overwhelmingly occupy the citadels of power. In the most upwardly mobile crucial senior UN positions, the presence of women has increased by one-tenth of one per cent over the last ten years: from 28.8 to 28.9 per cent. The target, for fifteen years, has been fifty per cent. The men never learn nor do they care.

When, just ten short months ago, the Secretary-General announced yet another Panel to review all peacekeeping operations, in all aspects, not just sexual exploitation and abuse, he appointed eleven men and three women. He was forced to apologize. He was forced to call it a mistake. He was forced to double the number of women. But all of that is simply to reveal the reactionary Pavlovian instincts when it comes to anything to do with women.

Now to the heart of this brief discourse.

For philanthropy, there are, I believe three lessons to draw.

First, there is so much indifference at the centre of the political establishment, international and national, that the grass-roots are in terrible pain. You can’t imagine the diminution in funding at community level. It’s a disaster. Community projects with women at the heart are being eviscerated. What is needed, especially internationally, is careful, generous financial support at the grass-roots … it’s possible to canvass the major NGOs and funders to identify where the needy projects are. As I’ve learned over the last twenty-five years, a few well-placed dollars at community level can restore both hope and resilience, and it’s the women, courageous, loving, indomitable, who provide the leadership at community level. I think of the women of Africa: they are magnificent.

Second, there is an equally desperate need to fund initiatives around public policy. Social programs and services are indispensable of course, but the framework of public policy to amend laws, to enact legislation, to establish a durable set of rules and regulations and protocols that consecrate women’s rights as human rights is not just indispensable; it’s a crime not to have it in place.

Forgive a moment of nostalgia: I can remember taking our older daughter to the Vienna conference on Human Rights in June of 1993, and being intoxicated by the mantra of women’s rights are human rights; I can remember pushing Bella Abzug (yes, Bella) in a wheel-chair through the corridors of the Conference on Population in Cairo in September of 1994, watching her verbally demolish all the male detractors as we cavalcaded through the crowds; I can remember plotting the agenda for Beijing of the Fourth World conference on Women in September of 1995, heart filled with hope for the emancipating revolution that seemed in prospect.

But the truth is, the sorry, dismal truth is that the inspired Plans of Action that flowed from all those conferences, have barely been implemented twenty years later. They constitute a vivid agenda for public policy for women. But we need to fund the groups that will do the work … and they are outside the UN.

Finally, and this is both difficult and a little presumptuous, I want to appeal to you to make your voices heard, either as individuals or as the collective Women Moving Millions. I realize that there are undoubtedly political differences in this room, but there are no differences when it comes to espousing the rights of women. You have the opportunity and the profile to condemn, publicly, those who depreciate and violate women and girls, and in the process bring attention to the unspeakable maligning of half the world’s population. I’m not asking you to mount the barricades … it can all be done respectfully, but we need voices and you have the voices.

Look, I don’t have the poetry, the words, the evocative power of someone like the remarkable Eve Ensler. But I spent a considerable time with the women who were raped during the genocide in Rwanda; and I’ve spent a considerable time with Dr. Mukwege at the Panzi hospital in Bukavu in the Eastern Congo, as the women, assaulted, battered, physically-shredded, literally crawled to the doors of the hospital seeking survival, and I’ve spent a considerable time with the leader of the women in Zimbabwe who were raped by Mugabe’s youth corps and war veterans during the elections of 2008, and I guess, most of all, I spent almost six years of my life watching women die, unnecessarily, in hugely disproportionate numbers, day after day, in the abattoir of the AIDS pandemic where every country in Southern Africa felt like a graveyard.

I can’t stand it anymore. My entire emotional range moves from rage to rage. I watch now, with you, the march of misery of the Syrian refugees, the great majority women and children; the indefensible resistance to absorbing thousands; the staggering paralysis of the world’s leaders in resolving the catastrophe.

But even as the heart sinks and senses recoil, there’s no time for despair … despair leads nowhere. We just have to keep the battle for social justice and gender equality alive … we’ll effect social change by driving it forward from below, from civil society. I tell my students that the single most important struggle on the planet is the struggle for gender equality. There are glimmers of hope everywhere — just look at Malala; just look at the growing education of boys to enlighten an 4 entire generation about the principle of equity; just look at the resurgence of feminism — we simply have to be tenacious and indefatigable and never give up. We can’t be intimidated or traduced by the philistines, overwhelmingly men, who wield the levers of power. They’re on the wrong side of history. They will lose.

I’m incredibly fortunate. I married a feminist; I live in a feminist family and I love it. I co-Direct AIDS-Free World with an extraordinary feminist from Boston, Paula Donovan, and with our little band of colleagues we see these battles as life itself. And I look around me: there are a lot of people in this room who can make a profound difference to the amelioration of the human condition. I urge you to do so. Thank you.