Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Stephen Lewis




Stephen Lewis has long been a hero of mine. An unapologetic and outspoken Canadian feminist, humanitarian, former political leader, lecturer, activist, UN ambassador, AIDS worker, author.

He weeps as he speaks of the violence against women perpetuated everywhere, not just in Africa where he spends most of his time attempting to bring attention and aid to the female victims of sexual violence, rape, genital mutilation and genital destruction. Yes, you read correctly, genital destruction.

Here is an excerpt from a recent talk he gave and he has given full permission for publication so that these almost unbearable crimes against women can be brought to the widest possible audience so that corrective action/protest measures can be taken.

I live in a feminist family, I love it. I believe to the end of my days that the feminist analysis of the exercise of male power is probably the most insightful analysis to explain much of what is wrong with much of this difficult world. And I must say that the more I’ve had the privilege of working in the international community, the more I have come to the conclusion that the struggle for gender equality is the single most important struggle on the planet. You cannot continue to marginalize 52% of the world’s population and ever expect to achieve a degree of social justice and equity: it’s just not possible.

And when you look at the damage that is done to the women, particularly of the developing world, through so many perverse realities whether it’s international sexual trafficking or female genital mutilation or child brides or honor killings or an absence of inheritance rights or an absence of property rights or an absence or laws against rape and sexual violence or an absence of microcredit to give women some sense of economic autonomy or a lack of political representation – whatever the panoply of injustice, discrimination and stigma visited on women it seems to have no end, and it so profoundly compromises their existence.

And what has happened through the developing world latterly in many parts and which is so unsettling, unnerving, so profoundly compromising are the patterns of physical and sexual violence. The World Health Organization just did a quite astonishing study. It interviewed twenty-five thousand women in fourteen countries about physical and sexual violence. It found that the lowest levels of violence were in Japan at 14%, and the highest levels were in rural Ethiopia at 71%. And when they looked at the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada they found interim levels of 30-35%. So they saw that this was a pattern so deeply entrenched, whether it’s marital rape or sexual violence from intimate partners or domestic abuse, these patterns are overwhelmingly entrenched.

And then when you get destabilization in countries they are further accelerated. A country like South Africa is a good example, where you have 5,700,000 people living with HIV and AIDS in a population of somewhat over 40 million. Incredibly enough, South Africa is a country where eight hundred to a thousand people die every day of AIDS-related illnesses. And in the most recent year for which statistics are available, which is 2006, there were 52,000 reported rapes. And everyone knows that reflects only 5-10% of the actual number because women are so reluctant, for a whole range of reasons, to actually, formally, to report the rape and begin to engage in a police and judicial process.

And it gets worse still when there is conflict. When there is conflict it goes right out of control. I don’t understand what these berserk lunatic predatory male sexual behavior – how it happens under conflict – but it happens and it never seems to end. And it’s not merely on the continent of Africa which I admit is a continent I love, but throw your minds back to the rule of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. The President of Indonesia just apologized to East Timor for the sexual violence that was unleashed by his forces when they tried to prevent the independence of East Timor. In the Balkans, I remind you a white, Western country, or countries, in the Balkans you have several military commanders who have come before the International Criminal Court charged with crimes against humanity rooted in sexual violence. The same is true for Colombia. There seems to be no part of the world which is exempt.

But in parts of Africa it really is astounding what is taking place. In the post-election violence in Kenya, suddenly more and more women were turning up at the hospitals, raped and subject to the most grotesque sexual violence. In Zimbabwe, an organization which I am involved with and to which I will refer at the end, AIDS-Free World, that Lisa mentioned in the introduction, I can’t go into details, which you will understand, but we have been over the last few weeks in an unnamed country in Africa, interviewing and taking affidavits under formal legal terms from the women who have been raped by Mugabe’s Youth Corps as Zimbabwe has ground down over the last several months. And Terror Camps were created --that’s what they’re called – to subject women associated in any way with the political opposition to insensate sexual violence.

And I was recently in Liberia, meeting with the President of Liberia and the Minister of Gender and the Unicef representative and they were telling me that the majority of rapes now in Liberia – after the civil war is over but the raping continues – the majority of rapes are committed against young girls between the ages of ten and fourteen. And everybody knows what’s happening in Darfur, that need not be explicated at length. For five years now the entire world has agreed that there is a genocide taking place and for whatever unconscionable reason we’ve never been able to bring it to an end. I mean, forgive me but this is not the Taliban in Darfur. These are Janjaweed militia commanders on horseback! And it is entirely possible to have subdued that and brought it to an end if the world cared a tinker’s dam for what was happening in that country.

And in the case of the Congo, you have a war on women. You know, if I may make a somewhat more intellectual observation, rape is no longer a weapon of war. Rape has become a strategy of war. You rape women in such numbers, so savagely that you humiliate entire communities through the women. The women hold the communities together. On the continent of Africa, nothing happens without the engagement of the women, particularly at the grassroots, particularly on the ground. And what happens is that the entire community is subdued, oppressed, overcome by these roving bands of marauding militias, who rape the women, move the community off the extractive resources, which is what they want, or turn the women into sex slaves and the men into the laborers who do extract the resources. And it’s hideous, the consequences, and it’s been going on since 1996. More than a quarter of a million women have been raped. And what is so unfathomable about it is everyone in a position of power knows, and it continues. I’ll never never comprehend.

In August of last year, Eve Ensler, the magnificent dramatist and writer of the Vagina Monologues went off to the Congo to see for herself what was happening and she spent a month or more and she came back and wrote an immensely powerful essay, the first words of which were, “I have just returned from Hell.” And I do not have the emotional equanimity to read to you the case histories that Eve set out. But after she came back suddenly the Undersecretary General of the United Nations, John Holmes, goes off to the Congo, comes back, writes an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times and calls it the worst place in the world for women. The Undersecretary General of the United Nations, who appears before the Security Counsel on a regular basis, and then suddenly there’s a front-page piece in the New York Times, and a front-page piece in the Washington Post, and a front-page piece in the Los Angeles Times, and Anderson Cooper of CNN does a twenty-minute segment on 60 Minutes, and everybody is caught up in the anxiety and urgency of what is being done to the women – it’s impossible to say in a way that can be absorbed what is happening to the women.

In the city of Bukavu in the Eastern region of the Congo there’s a little hospital called the Panzi Hospital where a lovely group of surgeons attempt desperately to repair the reproductive tracts of the women. This is rape that isn’t merely the gang-raping of eighty-year-olds and eight year olds, although that takes place. It’s rape with mutilation and amputation and guns and knives. Guns shot into the vaginas of women. I’m speaking to a sophisticated audience that cares about human issues – there is a medical term in the Panzi Hospital in Bukavu which I never in my adult life expected to encounter: it’s called “vaginal destruction.” And Eve Ensler has appeared before the Security Counsel, and we had an ostensible peace agreement, part of which peace agreement provided an amnesty for the militias that were doing the raping. And the war never ended. And the raping continues. And the war is now resuscitated. And so bad have things become that Condoleeza Rice, on June 19th, at the Security Council, introduced a resolution branding sexual violence as a matter of international peace and security. That had never happened before. And we have seventeen thousand United Nations peacekeepers in the Congo, the biggest peacekeeping mission in the world, and we cannot protect the women. And everyone knows its happening. And everybody knows that if we increase the numbers of peacekeepers, or the United Nations agencies did their job on the ground, or we confronted the government of the Congo in a way that no-one has had the courage to confront, we could perhaps abate the violence. But I have to tell you it’s so monstrous, and it’s so rooted in gender inequality, that it makes one feel not just tormented but dismal about the prospects for human behavior.


Read more here:

Write your government. I’m writing mine, and while I’m at it, a letter to the President Elect of the US. This needs top priority on his agenda.

14 comments:

  1. The level of violence still being perpetrated against innocent women in every part of the world (including the so-called civilised nations) is truly shocking. The only way it can stop is for men themselves to have a complete change of heart and attitude and learn to respect the other sex and treat them like human beings. Unhappily this possibility still seems to belong to cloud-cuckoo land.

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  2. It is completely systemic, Nick and rooted in poverty. The most successful solution is in educating the disadvantaged women so that they can gain some self-esteem and then inculcate that into their sons. The Aga Khan is one of the world's strongest proponents of this and has put his money where his mouth is.
    It is very uncomfortable for a lot of people to read this post but in my mind it deserves a full floodlighting. We can't continue to live as if these horrific abuses do not exist.
    XO
    WWW

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  3. Not just poverty. It increases in war situations too. Conquering armies always think rape and female humiliation is part of the deal. Fundamentalist religions also urge the subjection of women and all that goes with it. There are so many factors at work, it's incredibly hard to get a grip on them.

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  4. I was part way through writing a piece on African madmen when I read this post. I've used part of Lewis's speech in the article and linked to you for the rest. Africa has been the physical manifestation of all our shame for too long.
    As for the male abuse of the female, I agree with Nick that it's time for men to develop some respect for women. Everywhere, the female is used as a scapegoat for the male insecurity complex. (If anyone has any doubt how insecure the human male is, just observe his behavior over the last few millennia).
    The sad part is that in the West, instead of women being themselves and championing their right to be so, many are trying to become more like men. All that achieves is to make the male insecurity complex even worse.

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  5. Thanks for introducing me to this good man, WWW!

    I've looked in Wikipedia for his birth date and find it was his birthday yesterday, 11/11.

    I'll "do" his astrology in a blog in a day or two and link to your post. It's something everyone should read, and if I link to astrology it'll get picked up by a slightly different group.

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  6. Nick:
    Oh yes I agree, and you brought to mind for me the appalling sexual abuse and rape of female soldiers by their male counterparts in the U.S. army and other armies (I've no doubt).
    XO
    WWW

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  7. RJA:
    Thanks for the link, the more that read about this, the more outraged we will all get and do something about forcing our governments into condemning and ceasing these assaults. Just tonight I heard Mr. Lewis being interviewed and he says the case against Zimbabwe is getting better every day with the victims opening up as they feel more safe doing so.
    The subjugation of women is so ingrained in religions, ethnicities and politics that it is an enormous sea-change to even begin to have equality.
    It is like the old saying, if women were in charge even half of the time they would never send their sons off to war to kill other mothers' sons.
    And perhaps their sons would be gentler and kinder as a result.
    This discussion could take pages, RJA..... ;^)
    XO
    WWW

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  8. T:
    I will be most curious to see his chart, he is an amazing man. And yes, the more that read of this, the more attention it will get and maybe our governments will start some action.
    I had the good fortune to meet with him and his good wife (Michele Landsberg, feminist journalist) a few years ago at a dinner commemorating the massacre of the female engineering students in Montreal. There is something magical about him, the capacity for undivided attention to whomever he is speaking (much like Bill Clinton who has that gift also) and a natural humility.
    One of my brothers met him in Africa and has been shouting about him from the rooftops ever since.
    XO
    WWW

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  9. This is too sad and incomprehensible for me, Mary. My mind can no grasp these sort of crimes. They are too huge and alien to my world, which is so safe and sound, I assume.

    I can not comprehend that, as I write this, these sorts of things are happening right now, and yet they are and I somehow have to accept the fact that it is so.

    I want to turn away from so much horror and say, "I can't handle this." and I know that is true too, but somebody has to.

    It is a very bitter pill I have to swallow and to know this about my fellow human beings. Even here, this could happen. I have great sadness and great pain.

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  10. It happens everywhere to our sisters, Irene, in varying degrees, but violence towards women happens everywhere, no country or neighbourhood or community is exempt.
    We can only do what we can do, whether writing letters, marching, protesting, donating to good causes (like the Stephen Lewis Foundation).
    Every little bit done is another teaspoon to stop the inequality, the lack of protection and respect towards women and girls everywhere.
    Sometimes I despair too. In the past, I counselled battered women.
    XO
    WWW

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  11. Thank you, thank you for publishing this. I spent many years doing volunteer work on sexual violence against women. The devastation is absolutely unacceptable and must end. I have hopes that having Joe Biden (sponsor of the federal viol. against women act) will put a powerful voice in the spotlight. Let's write to him.

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  12. Rhea:
    Yes, the more protesting and outcry against these atrocities the more we will be heard and action taken.
    XO
    WWW

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  13. I posted the same excerpt on my blog (nutsandmutton dot com) on November 11th. I so admire and respect Stephen Lewis and this lecture raised him even further in my regard.

    It would be nice to think that, as you say, protest and outcry will cause action to be taken. What about Darfur, then? And Zimbabwe? Unless they're sitting on oil, the world doesn't care. In fact, with Darfur, the West is turning a blind eye, because the Janjaweed militia are terrorising the people off oil-rich land, which is good for oil explorers.

    We live in a sick world.

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  14. Tessa:
    I agree that the false god of money wrapped in many flags of dishonesty has driven countries to a frenzy of killing the innocents and condoning every atrocity and barbarity.
    We need to floodlight such behaviour for what it is.
    XO
    WWW

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