By Violet Law*
Canadian women’s rights advocate Stephen Lewis greeted the founding of the United Nations Women agency with both plaudits — and guarded optimism.
“The UN has a tough struggle on its hands, but it has got a fighting chance to succeed,” said Lewis. “This is our last best chance” to bring UNSCR 1325 closer into reality.
Like a parent eager to see his child succeed, Lewis, who said he has spent much of his UN career prodding the international body to make sustained efforts on gender issues just can’t stand to have another well-meaning attempt fall flat in his face.
“The most lamentable and heartbreaking dimension of multilateralism I have seen is the absence of any serious focus on gender throughout the UN system,” said Lewis, toward the end of his last UN assignment.
From 2001 to 2006, Lewis served as the Special Envoy to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan for HIV/AIDS in Africa. He keeps up with his UN ties by serving as a Commissioner on the newly formed Global Commission on HIV and the Law, created by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) with the support of the Joint United Nations Programme of HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).
His work with the United Nations began in 1984, when he was appointed Canada’s representative to the international body. From 1995 to 1999, Lewis was Deputy Executive Director of United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) at its global headquarters in New York.
For someone with a long history serving the UN, Lewis knows all too well the flaws of the bureaucracy. And that means he doesn’t pull punches or mince words.
“UNSCR 1325 has been an abject failure. It is a classical example of the UN passing a resolution and never implemented it,” said Lewis in an early October phone interview from Vancouver. “Resolution 1820 is just words on paper.”
UNSCR 1325, passed a decade ago, calls for “increased representation of women at all decision-making levels in national, regional and international institutions and mechanisms for the prevention, management, and resolution of conflicts.” The resolution recognizes thousands of peacewomen across the globe as actors of change, as well as their right to participate in peace negotiations and influence the contents of peace agreements and reconstruction processes. UNSCR 1820, adopted in 2008, is aimed at protecting women against sexual violence in conflict and expand their role in peacekeeping.
But Lewis said he has been hugely disappointed by the facts on the ground, especially in Africa. The two resolutions haven’t made a dent in improving women’s conditions on the continent, from AIDS transmission to sexual violence.
A recent case in point: Over two months this summer in the Congo’s North Kivu province, dozens of women were gang raped and as many as 500 systematic rapes were reported. All this took place under the very eye of the UN mission MONUC. Even UN Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Atul Khare admitted that the forces could have done more to intervene.
Said Lewis, “taking all in all, 1325 has been an absolute travesty. It is the signal demonstration of the unwillingness of the United Nations, the Security Council and beyond to intercede on behalf of women…an absolute demonstration that women have been expendable throughout conflicts. When women are on the receiving end, the UN never got its act together.”
To Lewis, all hopes for women, are now riding on the one who is going to lead: former President of Chile Michelle Bachelet appointed as under-secretary- general to head the newly-established UN Women.
“Hers will be a strong voice saying to the Security Council: Your behavior is completely unacceptable,” Lewis predicts.
Lewis recalled that the road from fantasy to fruition for the women’s agency is at least five years long. When Paula Donovan, his colleague in the Office of the UN Special Envoy for AIDS in Africa, first made the suggestion in 2005, “she was scoffed at,” Lewis remembered. “But there has been a growing awareness that women are so poorly served that it amounts to criminal negligence.”
That, coupled with intense advocacy and activism, gave birth to the new agency, which Lewis once hailed as “a vehicle that would give voice and resources and support to the struggles of women around the world.”
But this is only a start, he hopes. If he had the say, Lewis said, “I would make it mandatory, in every peacekeeping and peacemaking mission, women are at the table.”
The way Lewis sees it is, women’s representation in peacekeeping and at the negotiation table is not for political correctness. It has been a winning formula to solve some of the most intractable problems facing the world. He points out women peacekeeping forces have been successful in Sierra Leone and Liberia. So he is very much in favor of U.S Secretary of States Hillary Clinton’s promise of a women police force in the Congo.
After hundreds of thousands of rapes reported in the country, Lewis argues it really is about time. “The women in the Congo have never been pulled together to participate in peacemaking over the past two decades,” said Lewis. “We need make much more vigorous efforts in the protection of women before violence occurs.” Any peace pact without women’s involvement simply cannot hold. He foresaw it, and he saw just how things unravel.
On a grander scale, women’s rights and participation can help alleviate one of the continent’s biggest scourges – AIDS.
“Gender inequality is driving the pandemic, and we will never subdue the gruesome forces of AIDS until the rights of women become paramount in the struggle,” said Lewis at the XVI International AIDS Conference held in his hometown Toronto as the UN Special Envoy.
Now, as Co-Director of AIDS-Free World, an international advocacy organization based in the United States, Lewis has kept up his fight He is also a member of the Board of Directors of the Clinton Health Access Initiative and the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative.
“It’s still a very difficult ongoing struggle. Women are still disproportionately affected…Only in the recent years that we’ve started to focus on women in the epidemic,” said Lewis.
The fight has been aided by a growing awareness of the need to combat sexual violence against girls. That’s because HIV transmission rates are two to three times the norm among women who are victims of sexual violence. The majority of young Africans infected with HIV are female.
Since the root cause of AIDS, at least in his mind, stems from gender inequities, Lewis has charged his organization with a global initiative to calculate what it cost to end gender discrimination.
“I’ll see what it will do when it gets there,” said Lewis.
There is, at least, one thing in the UN that has answered Lewis’ wishes. When his term as special envoy for AIDS in Africa was coming to an end, he asked publicly that his successor be a woman and an African. Elizabeth Mataka of Botswana has been serving in that position since Lewis stepped down in 2006. (Oct. 2010)
*Violet Law is an American journalist reporting for a large number of media organizations