Stephen Lewis was recovering from surgery for spinal stenosis. And Annie Lennox was battling a viral infection and under a doctor’s care. But Hope Rising, the Stephen Lewis Foundation’s benefit concert for HIV/AIDS in Africa – featuring artists and activists Lennox, Angélique Kidjo and Sarah McLachlan – must go on.
The theme of the evening, set for Wednesday at Toronto's Roy Thomson Hall, is women and AIDS, because, Lewis said Wednesday, “they are the group least well responded to, even though they represent 50 per cent of infections worldwide and 60 per cent of infections in Africa.”
Apart from reflexive misogyny and the inability of policymakers to take it seriously, Lewis said he was hard-pressed to explain “the lack of urgency and intervention to deal with stigma, discrimination and cultural realities” to which women are routinely exposed.
According to Kidjo, the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter from Benin, the problem is rooted in the inferior status of women in African society.
“A girl in Africa has no identity,” she said. “She belongs to the father who can marry her off at any age to anybody. The girls have no say. Nobody hears their dreams. They start their sexual life early and there’s no program to protect them. Most African men don’t even know that pills exist.”
Kidjo said she had raised the issue with many African leaders, “and I’m not going to shut up. We can’t wait for the world to come to our rescue, if we don’t change our traditions, so that boys and girls have equal rights and your future isn’t already taken when you’re eight years old. But the solutions to African’s problems have to come from Africans themselves.”
McLachlan said she was inspired to get involved in the cause after hearing Mr. Lewis speak in British Columbia last year. She said she fell in love with him and his passion. Calling herself a community-oriented mother, she said she also wanted to get educated on the issue. “It’s shocking – the statistics. It makes me want to do more. And I love the power that communities have. We’re all in this together.”
McLachlan said she intended to sing a new song she’d written that reflected the power of women.
Symptomatic of women’s plight, Lewis said, was a session at a World Bank conference in Washington last July, examining future responses to AIDS. “There were 11 highly prestigious participants – 11 men – though everyone agrees that this pandemic has a woman’s face,” he said. Of 53 African countries, he noted, only two have female presidents.
The continent’s recent political turbulence has had less impact on AIDS campaigns, he added, than the general sense in the developed world that the disease is “chronic and that treatment available. There’s very little recognition of the fact that 34 million have the virus and only 7-8 million are in treatment. There’s a huge road to walk and it’s not being walked.”