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Influential women celebrated at HSWC Gala

30th anniversary event featured noted scholar and activist Stephen Lewis

The Howe Sound Women's Centre (HSWC) celebrated its 30th anniversary on Saturday (April 14) with a gala event at the West Coast Railway Heritage Park featuring three inspirational and fascinating speakers.

The evening titled "Women. Influence. Our World." opened with a few words from HSWC Society president Sheila Allen, who related clients' stories and described the history of the HSWC and the valuable services it provides to communities in the Sea to Sky Corridor - including transition and safe houses for abused women, counselling, drop-in support and advocacy.

Squamish local Mina Dickinson was the gala's first guest speaker.

A former HSWC board member, Dickinson shared her story of being marginalized as a woman and persecuted for her religious beliefs in her homeland of Iran. In the 1980s, Dickinson made a harrowing escape from Iran, came to Canada and spent more than 20 years helping other women at the HSWC.

"We can overcome and achieve our dreams," she told the audience. "And we can influence our communities."

Vancouver-based lawyer Katrina Pacey took to the podium next to speak about her work with the Pivot Legal Society, a group that works for the rights and support of sex trade workers and drug users in the notorious downtown east end of Vancouver. With stark black and white images from the Downtown Eastside displayed on a screen behind her, Pacey described how she got involved with Pivot and how the fight for social change altered her life. Pacey has won numerous awards for her advocacy, and she is well known for her work with the Missing Women's Inquiry and in keeping InSite - the safe injection site - open. Her work has earned her a spot on the list of B.C.'s Top 100 Women of Influence.

Stephen Lewis, a distinguished visiting professor at Ryerson University, followed Pacey as the final - and keynote - speaker for the gala.

Lewis is a Canadian broadcaster and diplomat who, among other things, has been the leader of the Ontario NDP, Canada's UN Ambassador and the UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa. He holds 32 honourary degrees and was given the Order of Canada.

Lewis, in a tremendously easy-going and eloquent style, spoke at length about his recent work talking to sex workers in Calcutta, India with noted feminist Gloria Steinem. He related his experiences in war-torn areas like Rwanda and Zimbabwe where the violence of battles inevitably spawns violence against women. He spoke of rape camps and rape gangs, and the incredible strength and will he has seen in victims.

"The world needs to put an end to sexual violence," he said. "But it will not stop, because it is women. If it were happening to men, it would have been addressed a long time ago."

Lewis said the quest for universal human dignity and gender equality would be a long and hard-fought battle.

"You can't ask for social justice and marginalize 50 per cent of the world's population," he said. "The world has to gather and mount a counter-attack."

But despite the horrific atrocities and heart-breaking stories he has encountered, Lewis said he still felt positive about the fight for social change and justice.

"I do get depressed with the state of things," he said. "But when I see organizations like the Howe Sound Women's Centre and what they are doing, it lightens my heart. It does my heart good to see people coming out and supporting these issues in small communities. I salute you for it."

For more on the HSWC, visit

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