It has been 33 years since the first reports of HIV/AIDS surfaced, and the pandemic, which has never been found to be racial, ethnic or gender specific among the population, is now affecting women the most. They account for more than half of the people living with HIV/AIDS — approximately 16.1 million women out of 32.1 million adults living with the HIV infection — according to the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS, or UNAIDS.
For Stephen Lewis and Paula Donovan, the plight of women with the disease stirs the heart of their organization, AIDS-Free World. Lewis and Donovan founded the international advocacy organization, based in Uniondale, N.Y., in 2007, when Lewis was the UN special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa.
With a staff of 14 people who work remotely by Internet from the United States, Caribbean, Canada, Africa and Europe, AIDS-Free World has independently raised, on average, $1.5 million annually. Most of the money comes from individuals and private foundations.
Donovan, an American, had been Lewis’s senior adviser and previously worked as Unicef’s regional adviser on HIV/AIDS in eastern and southern Africa and did advocacy for the agency. In addition, she had been a UN Africa-wide gender and AIDS adviser.
Lewis, a Canadian diplomat who was his country’s ambassador to the UN and later the deputy executive director of Unicef, is well known around the world body. He now teaches at Ryerson University in Toronto.
Together, the careers of Lewis and Donovan span 40 to 50 years of UN experience.
“We exist to right the wrongs in the global response to HIV as much as we can,” Donovan said in an interview about the organization’s mission. As the group works toward ending the pandemic, along the way it advocates proper and necessary treatment for all people, especially groups most susceptible to the disease: the most discriminated and poorest in society.
Donovan thinks the global response will improve, but it’s a question of political will: the people with money and power deciding if they are going to do something, she said.
“HIV is not going to die of natural causes,” she added. “It’s too virulent a virus to just ignore.”
Lewis is AIDS-Free World’s fiercest voice, offering weekly stirring video commentaries — on two to three current world affairs, their connections and implications to HIV/AIDS and the global response to these affairs. Lewis says his strongly worded commentaries derive from his and Donovan’s intentions to call the UN to account.
Lewis’s years spent as an HIV/AIDS envoy in Africa, from 2001 to 2006, and seeing countless deaths from the disease shook him up.
“It lives deeply in one’s soul,” he said during a phone interview. He credits Donovan for the idea of the videos. They generate modest traffic (70 to 120 “likes” per Facebook post) and generally positive feedback from hundreds of regular viewers, including former colleagues and other advocacy and nonprofit organizations.
Regardless of their popularity, the goal was for the videos to draw attention from relevant decision-makers, which Donovan said they have done.
It’s hard not to be riveted during Lewis’s articulate delivery and pull-no-punch commentaries, ranging from a minute to five minutes long, making people pay undivided attention and likely to get the message, Donovan said. Lewis makes the presentation from his Toronto house in his living room, with an elegant fireplace backdrop.
In a recent Week in Review video, Lewis lambasted UNAIDS (an interagency program created by the UN in 1996 to address the pandemic) as usual for what he sees as its failure to discuss prevention strategies against sexual violence of women in UNAIDS’ current advocacy brief.
“It’s glossy and colorful and insubstantial,” Lewis said of the 16-page publication. It also doesn’t offer new information, Lewis added.
Donovan gets frustrated when the international community fixates on repeating the same statistics and not on solutions. Sexual violence leads to HIV — no question, Donovan continued. “How many times can you state this fact, and measure the impact of this horrible reality before you start to feel foolish that you’re not saying ‘and here’s what we’re going to do about it.’ “
The report, “Unite With Women. Unite Against Violence and HIV,” addresses the World Health Organization’s conclusions about related factors and estimates for women who have been physically or sexually abused over their lives by intimate partners and the association of physical, sexual and substance abuse to HIV transmission.
“UNAIDS has to overcome this infatuation with superficiality,” Lewis said in the video. “It’s kind of an intellectual illness.”
During the phone interview for this article, Lewis suggested that the UNAIDS executive director, Michel Sidibé, and his staff should focus on what’s happening on the ground, community by community, and particularly focus on HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment for women.
Equally stirring was Lewis’s video commentary, posted in March, about a recent Brussels study that revealed jarring statistics on the sexual abuse of women. Of the 42,000 women interviewed in 28 countries, one out of 10 was sexually abused after age 15 and one out of 20 was raped after age 15.
Moreover, one-third of those cases were repeated rapes by current or former partners. Only 14 percent of the women reported the sexual abuse, making sexual violence one of the least-reported crimes on the books.
Lewis chastised UNAIDS in the video again for not making a stronger statement of commitment to fight violence against women in response to the study’s findings. He called for an international women’s organization to monitor insubstantial statements from UN agencies.
“It verges on indifference, contempt, even misogyny,” he said in the video.
In the video, Lewis addresses gay rights. In an open letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Lewis and Donovan condemned President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda for signing a bill on Feb. 24, 2014, that discriminates against homosexuals and gay rights supporters. In Uganda, gay people could be charged with “aggravated homosexuality” (including those with HIV) and punished with life imprisonment.
In the Feb. 26 letter to Ban, Lewis and Donovan also condemned Speciosa Wandira-Kazibwe, the UN special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa and a Ugandan surgeon and politician, for not publicly denouncing the bill, and they called for her UN resignation. [On March 10, she issued a statement that the new anti-homosexuality act signed by President Museveni “only serves to fuel stigma and discrimination against the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community and undermines the significant progress of the national AIDS response.”]
AIDS-Free World continues to pursue the matter with Ban and also has numerous pending judgments against Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and Belize for their antigay laws.
In Jamaica, AIDS-Free World recently lost a constitutional challenge to the local TV networks’ refusal to air a paid advertisement on tolerance, which the networks said endorsed homosexuality. The networks sought legal costs during the case from the organization, but a Jamaican judge ruled in favor of AIDS-Free World. The advertisement was not aired.
The court found that the case provoked the courts to question and redefine terms of the constitution; therefore, the courts were not inclined to award costs to the networks. AIDS-Free World was pleased with the ruling, Lewis said, which it could use in future litigation elsewhere.
In Trinidad and Tobago and Belize, AIDS-Free World has a case for each country before the Caribbean Court of Justice, challenging laws barring homosexuals and people with disabilities from entering the country. It is awaiting judgment.
In another case, AIDS-Free World requested a hearing last year before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, part of the Organization of American States, to challenge Jamaica’s antigay laws. No hearing date has been set so far. While the Jamaican government is not bound to the commission’s decision, a ruling that declared Jamaica’s antigay laws unconstitutional would significantly affect the country, Lewis said.
In an additional case, AIDS-Free World plans to challenge the constitutionality of Jamaica’s domestic antigay laws, using the country’s constitutional rights to privacy and equality in the argument. The case is scheduled to be heard in November.
Lewis considers LGBT rights a major human-rights issue; but women’s rights (on all issues: child marriage, sexual trafficking and violence, land rights, inheritance rights and others in developed and developing countries) remain the core focus of his organization.
“I don’t like having a hierarchy of rights . . . but fundamentally for us, women’s rights lie at the center of the rationale for everything we do,” Lewis said.
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Danielle M. Bennett is a former teacher of college-preparatory classes in history at the Pascack Valley High School in Hillsdale, N.J. She is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and received both a master’s degree and a bachelor’s degree in special education from the University of Maryland.