Please find below a small selection of speeches by Stephen Lewis. Mr. Lewis makes dozens of speeches a year, many of which are not directly related to his role as Chair of the Board of the Stephen Lewis Foundation. This is a small collection of speeches he has made recently about the AIDS epidemic and related issues.
These speeches may be reprinted, distributed, quoted, or copied as long as it is not for commercial use and they are properly sourced.
To browse older speeches, click on a year from the list on the right.
I had written down some notes, but I discarded those notes when I listened to two mentors, whom I love and admire and respect deeply, speak before me. The first is Sisonke Msimang who spoke at the reception. Sisonke has directed the Open Society Foundation in Southern Africa for many years as the premiere grant-making facility around issues of women and human rights. She talked about incandescent rage... which I feel from time to time. That, of course, is my diminution of the truth. I am sustained by incandescent rage, continually. And Theo Sowa – with whom I’ve had the privilege of collaborating lo these many years – talked about patience. And although in a way it’s an unlikely juxtaposition of the rage on the one hand and the patience on the other, that’s what I’d like to try to link for you tonight.
The rage flows, quite simply, from this: When President Obama and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said last year that we might be on the threshold of an AIDS-free generation, everyone applauded extravagantly at the hope that was implicit in that phrase. But we’re a long way from getting there. There are 34 million people infected with the virus today. And only 7-8 million of them are in treatment. And yet treatment is undoubtedly the way in which to contain this pandemic. We are moving so incrementally as to be heart-breaking in terms of the numbers that must be reached.
Central to that heartbreak is the fact that of the 24 million people living with the virus in sub-Saharan Africa, 60% of them are women. Among 15-24 year-olds, meanwhile, up to 75% of those infected are women and girls. And I want to tell you – based on some direct experience in the field – that women are the least adequately responded-to cohort in the entire pandemic.
I tried very hard when I was the UN’s envoy for HIV and AIDS in Africa to change that equation. I failed. I failed in significant measure because gender inequality that oppresses the lives women lead is driven by so much indifference and acidity and misogyny that it is a constant struggle to turn this world around. Women are fighting stigma and fighting discrimination and fighting for their place in their families. We’re now paying more attention to the so-called high-risk groups—the targeted groups—than we are to women. It’s right that we should be paying attention to the targeted groups: men who have sex with men, sex workers, injection drug users, prison populations, migrant populations. It’s absolutely appropriate and justified and important. But there’s something so out of whack and out of kilter that the energy and direction is towards the high-risk groups as though women were some kind of marginalized addendum. And the one area on which we are now focused on women internationally is when they are pregnant and HIV-positive—forming a very small portion of HIV-positive women, of course. And we put them on drugs in order to prevent the children from being born HIV-positive. And recently the world was so self-conscious—the leadership in the AIDS battle—was so self-conscious about the way in which they were focused on saving the lives of children and the women were relatively inconsequential to be sacrificed, they then added the phrase “and to keep the mothers alive.”
We’re keeping mothers alive with greater availability of antiretroviral drugs. But there are still large numbers of children being born HIV-positive. What is interesting in that regard is that pediatric AIDS is still very much with us and we don’t even have the drugs yet to deal with children between birth and the age of three. Those pharmaceutical formulations are only now underway. It’s incredible when you think of it. Over 300,000 HIV-positive children are being born every year—50% of them die before the age of two; 80% of them die before the age of five—and we’re only now beginning to construct the formulations. And their mothers – and women throughout the range of the pandemic – have never been adequately responded to. And this is where patience comes in. I listened to Theo’s thoughts and I wish there were a thousand Theos. And the question no one ever answers is: Why isn’t patience at the decision-making tables? Why don’t the women of Africa grow who so magnificently cope and have so much resilience, fighting this pandemic against all the odds—against overwhelming adversity—with such strength of character and purpose and resolve... Why aren’t they at the tables? Why aren’t they on the panels? Why aren’t they at the Commissions? That’s the question that’s never answered.
If you think I exaggerate, last December the Harvard School of Public Health held a conference called “AIDS at 30.” And they set up a Global Advisory Council in order to establish the agenda before the meeting. And they were very proud of their Global Advisory Council. It had 21 people on it: 19 men and two women. They just never learn... As recently as the International AIDS Conference last July, the most notable session that was held was held under the egress of the President of the World Bank, Jim Kim – another otherwise decent and able fellow, I’m very fond of him – but there he was in the World Bank’s offices, presiding over a panel which was to discuss the future responses to HIV and AIDS. It was so impressive and self-enhancing that it was piped into the largest conference room in the Washington Conference Centre. And they had 11 eminent panelists to discuss the future of the pandemic: 11 men. You’ve got to ask yourself: What in God’s name possesses these people? Do they not understand the nature of the pandemic? And that’s fundamentally what we’re fighting. And that’s what does most damage: This constant consignment of the women who know whereof they speak, who have the knowledge to the margins.
And that’s what I love about the Foundation. I’m the Chair of the Board. I’m so nominal it’s embarrassing. It’s almost furtive. I flit in and out of the Foundation, hoping not to be recognized lest they believe I have a place to fill. And the beauty of the Foundation is that it’s working at the Grassroots—it’s working at the community level. It’s opening the doors for the [women] to emerge and take hold of the agenda. And that is of tremendous importance. And the Foundation doesn’t avoid the more difficult and contentious issues. What Thandi [Newton] talked about in the Congo is absolutely right. That terrible pandemic of rape has ravaged the lives of women beyond endurance. And what did the Foundation do? It set up a special institute for the response to sexual violence—for the prevention of sexual violence. A group of women drawn from around the continent who move from place to place, doing therapeutic interventions and helping with the response where the contagion of sexual violence and rape is most palpable. Or when we need to give strength to home-based care workers, the Foundation has brought home-based care workers together from all over the continent and actually believes that they should be paid—a fascinating insight into the lives that women lead, because of course virtually all home-based care workers are women. And then, of course, there is the Grandmothers Movement, which again came from Ilana—directly and fully from Ilana. And that has become a social movement. I can’t get over it: the relationship between the Canadian grandmothers and the African grandmothers... and the tremendous solidarity and the sense of reliance and the understanding which is shared. It’s so much more insightful, knowledgeable, and authentic than all of these cerebral hotshots who occupy the palatial suites in the multinational institutions. And the great institutions like the Global Fund for AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria are, at the moment, letting us down for lack of funding. So how do we reverse that? We reverse it at community level. We reverse it at the Grassroots. That’s where the change happens. That’s where the resilience resides. And those women—those magnificent women—they have so much more to offer than those who make the decisions for them.
I have two final thoughts: One of the beauties of the Foundation is that it never wastes time. The decisions are not made by the Board every six months, but the decisions are made by the staff who can respond to a crisis quickly, can move the resources which are contributed quickly, and can do it without all of the endless bureaucratic and administrative blabber which haunts so many of the Foundations that would otherwise be doing first-rate work. And the second thing I love about the Foundation – and I watch it with intense joy and admiration – is the respect the Foundation has for the projects on the ground. This is not an equation – believe me – of donors and recipients. This is an equation which exists within a family where people embrace each other, love each other, respect each other, and recognize that the knowledge which is on the ground necessarily has to sustain the work that is done. And it’s that intense and remarkable dimension of the Foundation’s work which I summon tonight because in truth it brings to the women of Africa another range of support and focus which they so strongly deserve. And therefore when you come here as you have done in such extraordinary numbers, and you’re here for Hope Rising! I want to say to you, I feel both a part of it and separate from it, but the Stephen Lewis Foundation—and I’m embarrassed that it bears my name—it actually deserves your support. They do magnificent work.