Women’s Rights are Human Rights

Grandmothers Gathering 2006

Photo by Tamai Kobayashi, copyright Stephen Lewis Foundation

A few weeks ago James Macgowan of the Ottawa Citizen sent me the following question:

If you had a million dollars to give, who would get it?

When he first sent the request, I thought to myself…I don’t have a million dollars and who really cares what I have to say on the subject? Then I thought about it a little longer and realized that even though I don’t have a million dollars, I have words and James was giving me (as well as amazing authors like Andrew Pyper, Katherine Govier, Robert Wiersema, etc. ) the opportunity to put those words in front of his readers.

Around the same time that I was trying to put together some words and thoughts for James, I had a conversation with a woman about my radio documentary work with the CBC, The Birth House, and my next novel, The Virgin Cure. She commented that there seemed common threads in all my writing – women’s health and well-being, history, and healing. She asked me if these were conscious choices and if I felt I had a ‘calling’ in my work to tackle these issues.

It was then I remembered the words of Stephen Lewis – words that I keep pinned to the wall by my desk – words that inspire me as I move forward with my next book, words that say, “yes, you do carry a responsibility with the stories you tell.” These words remind me that although I’m currently immersed in the world of 1870’s New York City – the elite living so very near the slums, doctors struggling to find ways to heal the sick and stop the spread of disease, women without rights, little girls being sold into prostitution – that this past is the present for many women around the world.

…the most vexing and intolerable dimension of the pandemic is what is happening to women. It’s the one area of HIV/AIDS which 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.

Last Monday morning, at the women’s march, the signs read ‘Women’s Rights are Human Rights’. That was the slogan that captured the Vienna International Conference on Human Rights in 1993. It was the slogan repeated at the Cairo Conference on Population in 1994, and yet again at Beijing in 1995. It’s never been made real, and so long as men control the levers and bastions of power, it never will be real.

Whether it’s the apparatus of the United Nations, including the agencies, or the endless numbers of High-Level panels, or auspicious studies of human development like the Blair Commission on Africa, the demeaning diminution of women is everywhere evident. And those examples are but proxies for the wider world, particularly 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 untrammeled oppression of women in so many countries on the planet.
Stephen Lewis – at the XVI International AIDS conference in Toronto.
August 2006

Here is the response I sent to James:

What would I do if I had a million dollars?

First, I’d call Stephen Lewis (author of Race Against Time and the UN’s special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa) and ask him if he’d be willing to sit down with me and have a cup of tea.

In his keynote address at the 2006 International AIDS Conference in Toronto he said, “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.”

As a daughter, a sister, a mother and a writer, his words made me feel connected to the AIDS crisis in a way I never had before. It made me want to do something, to make things right. I’d like to think that a million dollars, put in the right place, might help move things in the right direction – towards a world where “Women’s Rights are Human Rights.” Stephen would know where to begin.

(from the Ottawa Citizen, December 19, 2006)

Stephen, I may not have a million dollars, but my words are yours…

Question of the day:

How will you use your words in 2007?

Related Links:

Stephen Lewis Foundation

Grandmothers to Grandmothers

Stephen’s entire Keynote Speech at the XVI International AIDS Conference

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