“The struggle for social justice and equality is why we’re on this planet,” said Stephen Lewis, summarizing his message to Miami University students and faculty late Thursday in the Heritage Room at the Shriver Center.
Currently a professor of global health at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Lewis was formerly a Canadian Ambassador and United Nations Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa (2001-06). His speech touched on the social injustices he had witnessed during his time as ambassador, specifically in Africa, and how they related to the U.N.’s eight worldwide developmental goals, to be achieved by 2015.
Chief among the goals, according to Lewis, is the elimination of people living in extreme poverty and hunger. The U.N.’s goal is to halve the number of people who are forced to live on $1 per day, a number Lewis cited at more than one billion.
“The levels of poverty are heartbreaking,” he said. “They seem to be more and more entrenched and deeply affecting greater numbers of the population.”
He also spoke on the mortality rates of children and mothers. He said that nearly 500,000 women die in childbirth worldwide, which could be reduced easily. Similarly, he said across the globe children die of preventable diseases, which the citizens of developed nations pay no attention to.
“You have to ask yourself, ‘Why is the life of an African child worth so much less than the life of a Western child?'” he said.
When he spoke on the U.N.’s goal to promote gender equality, several people in attendance were visibly affected. He described the injustices in the Congo, where he said women are sexually assaulted as a strategy for control in the war-torn country.
Often clenching his fists and striking his podium, an emotionally charged Lewis discussed the other goals of the U.N. as well, which include: enrolling all children in primary school; halting and reversing the spread of HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and other major diseases; reversing the loss of environmental resources; and developing a global partnership where developed nations actively support undeveloped ones.
Luke Pittman, a senior at Miami, said he was impressed with Lewis’ commanding speaking skills and got the feeling that Lewis wasn’t just putting on a show.
“He’s not just talking,” he said. “He’s living his life making changes and talking on the side.”
Cait Pantano, a first-year at Miami, said she would have liked to hear Lewis talk more about solutions to the issues he presented.
“I thought that he brought up a lot of issues that need to be dealt with, but I would have liked to hear more solutions,” she said. “What we as students can do.”
Lewis’ speech was sponsored by the Center for American and World Cultures (CAWC), and 16 other departments within the university. Professor Mary Jane Berman, director of the CAWC, said that the department’s selection of speakers during the current school year has been centered around on the U.N.’s developmental goals, but Lewis is the first to have had direct interaction with the U.N.