HIV/AIDS in Africa

How the other half dies

Tuesday 8 November 2005, by Stephen LEWIS

There’s just no way around the constant neglect in addressing the priorities for women. Perhaps the most recent glaring example of that truth is the report of the celebrated Commission for Africa, appointed by [British] Prime Minister Tony Blair. I can’t get over it.

Let’s start with the commissioners. There were 17 in total, three of whom were women. Three, or 17 per cent. Prime Minister Blair had the whole world to choose from, and he could come up with only three women. Tony Blair claims to be a social democrat; socialists are supposed to have greater sensitivity to such matters. But when it comes to women, sensitivity goes out the window. That commission was fatally flawed from the outset, simply by way of gender representation.

And the report showed it. This is a report that plowed new ground on foreign aid, on debt, on trade, on climate. It was justly saluted on all those issues for the sweep of its progressive recommendations in areas where others had always feared to tread. It recommended an immediate doubling of foreign aid, a cancellation of the debts of the poorest countries, and a vast reduction in agricultural subsidies as the centrepiece of a new trading regimen. Everyone applauded. As a matter of fact, the report even went so far as to challenge the intellectual underpinnings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in their dual adherence to fundamentalist monetarism.

On all those fronts it was bold, oh so bold.

But on women? The report is an absolute throwback. Other than the occasional paragraphs paying obligatory obeisance to women’s rights, there’s a feckless failure to recognize that women sustain the entire continent of Africa, and should have a definitive role in every single aspect of social, economic, political, civil and cultural life, from peacekeeping to agriculture to trade to AIDS. If there had been a Commission for Africa with 14 women and three men, I can absolutely guarantee that the final report would have differed root and branch from the report we now have in hand. One day — probably in the next millennium — such a commission will be appointed.

And just to demonstrate the absolute, unwavering consistency in such matters, allow me to mention, however heretical it may seem, the communiqué issued in July, 2005, by the G8 meeting in Gleneagles. Honestly, it’s like a parody.

From my impeccable desktop printer, the document emerges as 18 pages in length, 35 paragraphs in all, 5,000 to 6,000 words, with two full appendices. There are five references to women: two in that most common linguistic fusion of "women and children," one mandatory reference to "pregnant women and babies," one in conjunction with youth employment, and one throwaway line, entirely neutral, incorporating "gender equality."

It is my contention — a contention with which many commentators would take issue — that the stunning absence of emphasis on women in the official pronouncement of the G8 is an ominous omen for the delivery of commitments made. You simply cannot be serious about Africa and treat women with such contempt.

It won’t work. Mark my words: Come 2010, G8 excuses will be the order of the day. Bush, Blair, Chirac, Schroeder, perhaps even Martin, will all be out to pasture, shrugging shoulders of insouciance. Read the document, note the void, and weep.

But when all is said and done, the ongoing struggle to embrace gender equality was most poignantly brought home to me in confronting the pandemic of HIV/AIDS. [. . .]

Governments in Africa do not do well in the protection of women’s rights. In fact, as I shall momentarily demonstrate, they are profoundly deficient. I’ve been completely taken aback, on more than one occasion, by the wall of indifference thrown up by cabinet ministers when I raise, for example, the plight of women in the era of AIDS. At one point, in the case of Angola, a very senior member of the administration lapsed into locker-room smirking at the mere mention of women.

My argument is quite simple: They would not be allowed to indulge in such asinine and/or negligent behaviour if there were a watchdog, a full-fledged agency or institution as part of the United Nations, whose job it was to ride herd on the recalcitrants. Governments get away with it because no one cares enough to prevent governments from getting away with it.

And what is the upshot? In the UNDP Human Development Report for 2003, there is a gender-related development index which rates most of the countries of the world according to a number of economic and social indices, taking into account, in particular, performance on the overall status of women.

Let me identify the 20 countries at the bottom of the list of 145 which are ranked for gender, starting with the country right at the bottom, and working up: Sierra Leone, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, Burundi, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Central African Republic, Guinea-Bissau, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola, Côte d’Ivoire, Chad, Zambia, Malawi, Benin, Tanzania, Rwanda, Senegal, Eritrea.

Twenty countries. All are African. While it is appalling that Africa occupies a place of such dishonour, that so many leaders are beyond redemption on issues of gender, it should also give everyone pause about the role of multilateralism.

It’s not possible for the UN family in any of these 20 countries to grab the heads of state by the scruff of the neck and shake them into equality. But it should be the role of the UN family to shame, blame, and propose solutions, all the while yelling from the rooftops that inequality is obscene. Only then will change have a chance.

* This an excerpt from Stephen Lewis’s 2005 Massey Lectures. This excerpt also appeared in a Saturday, October 22, edition of The Globe and Mail. eNews/TPStory/LAC/20051022/LEWIS22/TPHealth/

Stephen Lewis is the United Nations Secretary-General’s special envoy to Africa for HIV/AIDS

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