Noted Canadian diplomat, AIDS activist and women's advocate Stephen Lewis will step down from his post as United Nations Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa in December 2006. Also head of the Stephen Lewis Foundation, which funds community-level efforts to combat HIV/AIDS in Africa, he is an ardent advocate of social and gender justice as being the answer to the AIDS pandemic.
Lewis was also a strong advocate for the recently announced new UN agency for women. This agency will combine several existing UN agencies - such as UNIFEM, the Office of the Secretary General's Advisor on Women and Gender Issues and the Division on the Advancement of Women - and will be headed by an Under-secretary General. It is believed that it will have greater visibility and status than its component parts have had.
He talks here about why oppression of women is a "ghastly, deadly business" and how the UN agency for women could be the ideal vehicle for change. An interview.
Q. What drives your burning desire for social justice and gender equality? What formative experiences led to your career as an internationalist and outspoken advocate for women?
A. I come from a left-wing family. We've been Social Democrats for generations, so the basic principles of social justice have always driven my convictions. My father was active politically in Canada and my wife, Michele Landsberg, is an ardent feminist who wrote a column for 20 years. We always told our children they had to be feminists or they would be disinherited! And I have two outstanding colleagues - Paula Donovan and Anurita Bains - who like others I've worked with over the years, share and influence my commitment to social justice and to equality for women. Now with the AIDS pandemic and what is happening to women as a result, I've never felt the urgency for gender equality more sharply.
Q. You are recognized, respected, and many would say loved, internationally for your work on behalf of the world's women, especially those who are bearing the burden of the HIV/AIDS crisis. Would you explain why you feel so passionately about their plight?
A. The most vexing and intolerable dimension of the pandemic is what is happening to women. It's the one area of HIV/AIDS that leaves me feeling most helpless and most enraged. Gender inequality is driving the pandemic and we will never subdue the gruesome force of AIDS until the rights of women become paramount in the struggle. The demeaning diminution of women is evident everywhere, particularly in the developing world, where freedom from sexual violence, the right to sexual autonomy, to sexual and reproductive health, social and economic independence, and even the whiff of gender equality, are barely approximated. It's a ghastly, deadly business - this oppression of women in so many countries on the planet.
Q. Do you think this new independent UN agency for women will deal more effectively with women's needs than the UN has done historically?
A. The new agency represents an extraordinary move forward, if implemented and funded as recommended. One must exercise the necessary caution, but if the contents of the proposed agency come into play it will be the most significant breakthrough for women in the entire history of the United Nations. For the first time we have a vehicle which can truly transform the lives of women and can make a huge difference in saving women's lives. I'm pleased that Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the UN, and his successor, have both indicated that women's recommendations are very important as the agency moves forward.
Q. What are some key elements in making it work?
A. There are three critical pieces that will determine if the new agency will truly be a turning point. First, we must understand that women's empowerment and equal rights are central to development and peace. That's why the high-level panel recommended that this new entity be "fully and ambitiously" funded. To make up for lost time and to turn the rhetoric into reality, the agency will need an initial budget of US$ 1 billion, which is only half of UNICEF's budget last year.
Second, success hinges on the development of sharply focused operations, high-quality, substantive technical expertise, and strong leadership at the country and regional levels. Targeted programs based on the 12 areas addressed in the Beijing Platform of Action are needed in every country.
Finally, the new agency for women will need a leader with vision, expertise, authority, empathy and devotion unparalleled in the history of multilateralism. This Under-secretary will be part of the UN governing body and will serve on its central executive board. She will be part of senior administration and will, therefore, have the flexibility and opportunity to inform governments and the UN body. A search for the Under-secretary General to head the agency will begin before the end of 2006year and the position will begin in 2007, so there is a rapid timeline.
Q. Where will the funding for this agency come from?
A. Bilateral governments, major western donors and those interested in changing the gender equation in the world will now have a focus for mobilizing funds. The American election is a big plus too. More women in Congress will mean more money and a much more enlightened and sympathetic response from the US.
Q. You must be very excited by all of this. For years, you've struggled mightily on behalf of the world's women.
A. I'm thrilled at what's happened. I'm determined, with so many others, to make it work. And the women who fought these battles will be successful. This is not a hollow shell. This is real. Now we need leadership, funds and opportunities on the ground. We'll all fight hard for that and to create as much international support for the agency as possible.
Q. I suspect you have been a thorn in the side of many politicians, bureaucrats and UN officials. Have you been censored or told to back off very often?
A. I've only been asked once by the Secretary General of the UN to curb what I was saying. I was asked not to attack the US for its abstinence over condoms policy in Uganda because it might upset the US president who was scheduled to attend a meeting at the UN. In the end, he didn't come anyway.
People often assume you have to engage in self-censorship to make an impact. I don't agree. To me, that's a recipe for selling out. Silence is complicity. We are talking about AIDS, gender, life and death issues and these are non-negotiable items. People are dying. It's nonsense to strangle what you have to say in the face of catastrophe.
Q. Your term as Special Envoy to Africa on AIDS will come to an end in December. What's next for you?
A. In addition to the Stephen Lewis Foundation which focuses on funding community-level projects that help women, grandmothers, orphans and people living with AIDS in Africa, we will be working actively for the success of the women's agency.
Q. Who would you like to succeed you as UN Special Envoy for AIDS in Africa?
A. I have asked that my successor be an African, but most importantly, an African woman. All roads lead from women to social change. That includes subduing the AIDS pandemic.