The Elders Speak: Desmond Tutu, Jimmy Carter And Mary Robinson

There is a diverse, all-star cast of some of today's most treasured and charismatic leaders who have come together online and off in a group called the Elders. Their mission: to fight for social justice.
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Throughout the ages, there has been a cultural tradition to respect your elders for their knowledge, wisdom and perspective. A contemporary version of this is an all-star, diverse cast of some of today's most treasured and charismatic leaders who have come together online and off in a group called the Elders. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu told me, "We Elders have even been known to Tweet!"

The Elders describe themselves as "an independent group of eminent global leaders, brought together by Nelson Mandela, who offer their collective influence and experience to support peace building, help address major causes of human suffering and promote the shared interests of humanity." I first became aware of the work of the Elders when I heard about Jimmy Carter's speech at the 2009 Parliament of the World's Religions on the 'Religious Imperative for the Equality of Women and Girls.' I was intrigued and wanted to find out more about the Elders' work, particularly about their calls against the oppression of women and girls in the name of religion and tradition.

Three of the esteemed members of the Elders, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former President Jimmy Carter and the first woman President of Ireland Mary Robinson (who was also a former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights), were gracious enough to answer a few of my questions, providing the following inspirational and thoughtful answers. Desmond Tutu enthusiastically praised the role of technology in fostering connection and "global cooperation and understanding." Mary Robinson emphasized the importance of including girls in the global movement for equal rights, for "it is in adolescence that events can have a huge effect on a girl's life." And Jimmy Carter spoke about violence and discrimination against women as a "global scourge" and challenged those "who use the word of God to justify discrimination."

These world leaders sound off on issues they are passionate about and the Elders are working hard to address, through the many important campaigns you can find out about at their site. And though the world may face many challenges, these Elders still find many reasons to remain hopeful. As Tutu eloquently puts it, "It may seem daunting, but I am a prisoner of hope. We are more connected than ever before, we have more knowledge, and there are solutions if we work together." He reminds us, "What unites us is our common humanity."


Marianne Schnall: The Elders organization is an independent group of eminent global leaders. People grow through many different stages of life from infancy to adolescence, adult to midlife, to being elders. What type of unique wisdom do you think our elders have to offer?

Desmond Tutu: I certainly don't think we are oracles but I would hope that over our lifetimes we have accumulated some useful experience and perhaps even a modicum of wisdom! We don't have all the answers. What we try to do as Elders is help those who are trying to change their own societies and communities for the better. We hope that by supporting the good work that is being done, especially at the grass roots, we can help to alleviate the suffering of human beings. That is our core mission - to draw attention to the impact that conflict, injustice and poverty have on ordinary people. And we want to use what influence we have at a leadership level to make sure that those who can change things, do so.

MS: There are many critical issues the world faces. How do you see them as interconnecting?

Desmond Tutu: When we look at a conflict, it is so often rooted in injustice, prejudice, competition for resources, poverty, poor governance and corruption. Poverty - the greatest cause of human suffering on the planet - is itself exacerbated by conflict, competition for resources, injustice, even the global downturn and climate change. Diseases like AIDS, TB and malaria cannot be tackled without adequate resources. So you see everything is connected. In order to address any major cause of human suffering, we have to work together across many fronts.

It may seem daunting, but I am a prisoner of hope. We are more connected than ever before, we have more knowledge, and there are solutions if we work together.

Today's technology is a great asset in encouraging global cooperation and understanding. I used to have to travel the world making the same speeches about apartheid and the campaign to release Nelson Mandela. People were simply not connected the way they are today. Now there are so many ways to communicate - like this blog. I love the way young people communicate across the globe using the internet and mobile phones. It is so exciting. We Elders are even known to Tweet!

MS: What commonalities do you see between people of different cultures, religions, and nationalities?

Desmond Tutu: We are all connected. What unites us is our common humanity. I don't want to oversimplify things - but the suffering of a mother who has lost her child is not dependent on her nationality, ethnicity or religion. White, black, rich, poor, Christian, Muslim or Jew - pain is pain - joy is joy. In Southern Africa we have a concept called Ubuntu - which is that you can't exist as a human being in isolation. You can't be human all by yourself. We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas what you do, what I do, affects the whole world. Taking that a step further, when you do good, it spreads that goodness; it is for the whole of humanity. When you suffer or cause suffering, humanity is diminished as a result.

MS: On the Elders website, there is a section for the "Equality for Women & Girls" with a statement ending "The Elders are fully committed to the realization of equality and empowerment of all women and girls." Which issues impacting women and girls concern you most?

Mary Robinson: Girls and women face many challenges in achieving equality with men and boys. In education, access to justice, property rights, health services, politics, business - in almost every aspect of life, women are treated differently and often worse than men, and girls are often given fewer opportunities than boys.

As Elders, we are fully committed to the principle that all human beings are of equal worth. You will see that we highlight equality for girls and women - not just women's rights. That is important as girls, especially adolescent girls, have been almost invisible in debates on equal rights. Yet it is in adolescence that events can have a huge effect on a girl's life.

Education is the most obvious and important issue. Most girls around the world now go to primary school and that is encouraging. But girls are also much more likely than boys to drop out of school. Families may choose to educate boys above girls, or expect girls to stay home to take care of the family. Once they reach puberty, inadequate toilet facilities at school, or sexual harassment may also lead to girls discontinuing their schooling.

Marriage at a young age is a terrible risk for girls. Those who become pregnant while they are in their teens are at far higher risk of dying during pregnancy or childbirth. While child marriage is outlawed in most countries, it is still practiced in the name of 'tradition'. I hope that we can raise awareness about the grave danger this poses - and encourage leaders to put far greater effort into policing and ending it.

It is these kinds of harmful practices, often carried out in the name of religion or tradition, which we would like to draw special attention to. In the most worrying cases, tradition and religion can be used to justify violence, neglect and abuse of girls and women rather than to further equality and mutual respect.

MS: President Carter, you recently spoke to the 2009 Parliament of the World's Religions on the 'Religious Imperative for the Equality of Women and Girls' and the Elders have a statement at their site calling for "an end to the use of religious and traditional practices to justify and entrench discrimination against women and girls." Can you elaborate your thoughts on this?

Jimmy Carter: Violence and discrimination against women are a global scourge. The evidence is clear : one in three women experience beating or sexual assault in their lifetimes, millions of baby girls are 'missing' due to sex-selected abortion or infanticide in societies that favor boy children, women in some Islamic societies are punished for showing an ankle, and their word is worth less than that of a man in law. In rape cases women are often treated as the guilty party and punished as such.

Progress is being made of course. Discrimination is formally outlawed in most countries and women have reached the highest political offices in many societies around the world. But it is ironic that in many religions women are still viewed as inferior and deprived of the equal right to serve God in positions of religious leadership. This contributes to an environment in which violations against women are justified.

The truth is that male religious leaders have had - and still have - an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. Too often they have chosen the latter. Their continuing choice provides the foundation or justification for the pervasive persecution and abuse of women throughout the world.

At their most repugnant, the belief that women are inferior human beings in the eyes of God gives excuses to the brutal husband who beats his wife, the soldier who rapes a woman, the employer who has a lower pay scale for women employees, or parents who decide to abort a female embryo. It also costs many millions of girls and women control over their own bodies and lives, and continues to deny them fair and equal access to education, health care, employment, and influence within their own communities.

It is time we had the courage to challenge these views and set a new course that demands equal rights for women and men, girls and boys.

Mary Robinson: As Elders we have great respect for all religions and traditions as important forces that bind people together. Faith and tradition provide much of the foundation of our laws and social codes. But where religion and tradition are used to justify discrimination and especially when they are used to justify cruel and harmful practices such as female genital mutilation, infanticide and child marriage, then we believe that is unacceptable.

There are many traditional and religious leaders - both men and women - who are champions of equality and human rights, but there are also many leaders - mainly men - who use tradition and religion to deny girls and women equal rights and opportunities in life. I dare say they are worried about giving up power to women. I hope that the Elders can persuade them that we will all benefit if all girls and boys, men and women, are given an equal chance to develop their full potential.

MS: What do you believe is the next step in humanity's evolution and what is your wish for the children of the future?

Jimmy Carter: That is a very big question. For me, the equal treatment of women and girls, and challenging those who use the word of God to justify discrimination, is a very important matter. The other is the quest for peace in the Holy Land. Both of these are very close to my heart and have been throughout my career. I hope that I shall live to see peace between Israelis and Palestinians. I will also continue to fight for the rights of women and girls to be treated equally in all aspects of life. Sadly I don't think that will be achieved in my lifetime.

MS: Any last words of wisdom or guidance you would like to share?

Desmond Tutu: Give young people a greater voice. They are the future and they are much wiser than we give them credit for. And laugh more. Don't forget to enjoy the blessings that God bestows on this beautiful planet.

For more information on the Elders, visit

Portions of these interviews were featured in an article at the Women's Media Center.

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