On April 17th, I attended a talk at Ryerson University by Canada’s own Stephen Lewis. The talk was advertised under the same title as this article, “Gender Equality: The Most Important Struggle on the Planet.” The event posting says nothing about the subject matter of Mr. Lewis’ speech other than the title, which would lead one to believe he was going to speak about gender equality. The rest of the page says nothing except provide praise for Mr. Lewis’ impressive background and, as someone who also does work with people living with HIV, I greatly respect his work.
However, I do not feel that Mr. Lewis spoke about gender equality. He spoke to women’s issues. I agreed with a lot of what he said, and I agreed that many of the issues he presented were issues women face, but that is not a discussion of gender equality, that is a discussion of women’s issues.
I will repeat myself. I agreed with a lot of what Stephen Lewis said, and that these issues women face need to be addressed, but his speech was about women’s issues and very little focused on gender equality.
Mr. Lewis does a lot of work with people living with HIV/AIDS (PHAs). He has a foundation in his name that is set up to help combat HIV/AIDS in Africa. His website gives some insight into his perceptions of gender equality:
“The Stephen Lewis Foundation (SLF) works with community-level organizations which are turning the tide of HIV/AIDS in Africa by providing care and support to women, orphaned children, grandmothers and people living with HIV and AIDS”
In his talk, he mentioned a number of times that we were ignoring 50% of the world when we ignored women. That 60% of PHAs in Africa are female. He spoke about the use of rape in war against women in Africa, primarily in the Congo and during the Rwanda genocide. He talked about the recent gang rape incident on the bus in India. When discussing the West, he spoke about the Steubenville rape case and the recent suicide of Rehtaeh Parsons. I will repeat, these are all valid issues facing women, but is it a discussion of gender equality when the discussion focuses only on women? Mr. Lewis also brought up the much disproved notion that women in the West are paid 30% less than men are for the same job.
There was a question period following the talk. Mr. Lewis felt it was the perfect end note to the lecture when a female audience member said she agreed with a previous questioner who asked if we shouldn’t also address men’s issues (while completely missing the mark on what that man had asked), and that it comes down to socializing boys to respect women. She said men are the problem with gender equality, since it is women who do not have it, and so men need to be socialized as soon as they exit the womb. I am surprised she at least felt we should wait till the boys exit the womb and didn’t suggest having pregnant mothers listen to pro-women audiobooks while their future-rapists and women abusers are in the womb. I suppose not all parents ask if their child is going to be good or bad, I mean female or male, before they give birth.
If we are ignoring 50% of the world when we don’t discuss women, are we not ignoring 50% of the world if we do not discuss men? If a small percentage of the men are the perpetrators of this oppression to women, is it fair to focus solely on them or the women they oppress? What if these men also oppress men? What if some women (a small percentage, as with men) also oppress members of both the male and female gender?
Yes, 60% of PHA’s in Africa are female, but should we ignore the 40% of men in Africa who are also infected? Mr. Lewis said that when African women, who were HIV positive, were giving birth, the response historically focused on preventing the child from acquiring HIV from the mother while neglecting the mother herself. Yes, they should both be taken care of, since a child will do better if his or her parents do not die of HIV shortly after it is born. However, if the child is born male, and does contract HIV through the birthing process, should we then focus our efforts on the mother since she is of that greater 60%? No, we should still be focusing on both, even though that male child born with HIV will grow up to be a man with HIV.
In my work with HIV in Toronto, my client base is approximately 80% men and 20% women. We try to provide equal services as best we can to all who carry the virus, regardless of sex. That is equality, even if the numbers are not. Let’s look at some of Mr. Lewis’ other speaking points by using that model of equality, i.e. that we provide the necessary solutions to a problem for all who suffer it, regardless of whether that problem affects one identifiable group disproportionately in comparison to others.
The effects of the genocide in Rwanda were horrid on both sides of the gender divide. 800,000 – 1,000,000 men, women, and children were murdered during a 3 month period, which works out to 6 murders a minute. I don’t doubt that women suffered rape more often than men (an estimated 90% of female survivors of the genocide had been victims of sexual abuse) but, as always, I think rape statistics of men are no doubt hard to report on accurately. Reports of male rape are usually mentioned as an aside in articles of rape perpetrated against females:
“Tutsi men and boys were forced to rape Tutsi women or were forced by Hutu women to have sex with them.”
Mr. Lewis spoke about women suffering rape in the Congo, without acknowledging that men in the Congo also suffer rape. Women may suffer rape more, but rape is not just women’s problem. I don’t mean that in the “men can stop rape” sense, which has always been insulting to me, and people never think of the impact that must have on men who have been raped themselves. “You’re a man, why didn’t you stop it?”
When Mr. Lewis spoke about gendered violence outside of Africa, he mentioned the bus rape in India but neglected to mention that there was also a male victim in that situation. He may not have been raped, and he didn’t die from his injuries as the woman did, but he too was beaten with a pipe and thrown off the bus naked. Mr. Lewis can be excused for this oversight, as most media outlets rarely gave more than a passing mention of the “male friend”. I sometimes wonder if he would he have gotten any more coverage had he died in the attack as well.
When the conversation came to the West, Mr. Lewis mentioned the Steubenville case and the public outcry in defence of the sports players accused instead of the young woman victimized. He did not mention Jerry Sandusky, who was charged with 52 counts of sexual abuse of boys over 15 years (and later convicted), and there was spirited public defence of that local sports “hero” as well. This reflects the inordinate amount of respect, almost reverence, that society places on sports figures, but it also shows how both genders can be equally affected by rape. In the Sandusky case, Joe Paterno, speaking on the case, quipped “I never heard of, of, rape and a man.”
Mr. Lewis also mentioned the case of Rehtaeh Parsons who, after being raped, bullied, and unsupported after the incident, committed suicide. He did not mention Trey Malone, a student at Amherst College who was raped, did not receive support, and then committed suicide as a way out (a solution men unfortunately complete at 4 times the rate of women). The link above is to his suicide letter, which was posted with permission by his family. I found it very unsettling to read those words myself.
If we are to truly discuss gender equality, then we should be discussing causes and solutions of mutual situations that could help men and women in dealing with these shared issues. In my work with PHAs, I provide them with food deliveries to help them when necessary, usually after being hospitalized or suffering a loss of mobility. It does not matter whether it’s the 60% / 40% gender split of HIV in Africa, or the 20% / 80% I see in Toronto. What matters is that we find solutions to keep people from falling in the cracks, or eliminating the cracks altogether. That is the basis of my role in social work within an anti-oppressive framework, to acknowledge the cracks and issues in the systems and structures of our society, and to do my best to minimize people falling into them. Discussing gender equality, without discussing the genders equally, is the biggest crack there is in the gender debate.
It was a good talk on women’s issues, Mr. Lewis. However, in discussing gender equality, you ignored 50% of us.
–This article can also be found at the Canadian Association For Equality (CAFE)