Since leaving the White House in 1981, Jimmy Carter, the thirty-ninth President of the United States, has been one of our most active presidents. In 1982 he and his wife Rosyln Carter founded The Carter Center, dedicated to advancing peace and health worldwide. He has authored 28 books and in 2002 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for "his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development."
In his new book, A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power, President Carter has focused his attention on what he calls "the most serious and unaddressed worldwide challenge" of our time - the discrimination and abuse of women and girls. The book reflects his wisdom and perspective having traveled to over 145 countries and been a firsthand witness to a system of discrimination that extends to every nation in which women are routinely deprived of education, healthcare and equal opportunity, "owned" by men, forced to suffer servitude and child marriage, or trapped, along with their children, in cycles of poverty, war and violence. In his groundbreaking book, he also writes about the most shocking and disturbing human right abuses, ranging from the infanticide of millions of newborn girls and selective abortion of female fetuses, female genital mutilation, the global pandemic of rape, including rape being used as a weapon of war, and the worldwide trafficking of women and young girls. The book also covers many timely issues that impact women and girls in the United States, such as the way incidences of sexual assault and rape are treated with relative impunity on some of our most prestigious college campuses as well as in the U.S. military, or the social undercurrent of discrimination that results in fewer promotions, lower pay, and unequal representation in leadership positions in politics and many others sectors of society.
In A Call to Action, President Carter also examines the deeply ingrained links between the incorrect interpretations of religious texts preaching that men are superior to women in the eyes of God, which is often used to justify the subjugation and abuse of women and girls. (Carter felt so strongly about this issue he left his own church after seventy years -- the Southern Baptist Convention - over its decision in 2000 not to allow women pastors, deacons, chaplains, or teachers in seminaries.) He further connects the problem to the world's glorification of violence, telling me that, "the excessive resort to violence of all kinds plus misinterpretation of biblical scriptures are two of the generic causes."
I last interviewed President Carter in 2010 about his involvement in a group called The Elders, who 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." The Elders had just announced their Equality for Women & Girls initiative which included calling for "an end to the use of religious and traditional practices to justify and entrench discrimination against women and girls." President Carter told me, "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 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."
As a woman and a longtime activist for women's causes, I am heartened and moved by the passion of our former President (now 89 years old) to take on this often neglected issue with such fervor, commitment and comprehensiveness. He represents an important and growing trend of men advocating against violence against women and supporting women's equality - a long-due recognition that these are not "women's issues" but crucial human issues that affect and impact us all.
President Carter believes the suffering of women and girls can be alleviated when individuals take forceful actions, which can impact larger society. In a A Call to Action, President Carter provides 23 recommendations "that can help blaze the road to progress" and encourages people to visit The Carter Center web site to join with him in this effort. As President Carter writes in his book, "My own experiences and the testimony of courageous women from all regions and all major religions have made it clear that there is a pervasive denial of equal rights to more than half of all human beings, and this discrimination results in tangible harm to all of us, male and female. A commitment to universal human rights is desperately needed if humanity is to escape the cycle of war, poverty, and oppression."
Marianne Schnall: What inspired you to write this book?
Jimmy Carter: It's covered in the book to some degree - we've had programs in seventy-nine countries on Earth. And a lot of them have been in the third world, in the most poverty-stricken countries and villages on Earth. And we have seen increasingly the abuse of girls and women in the local families, on the farms, and depriving them of adequate food and health care and education, when they only had one or two children is all they could bear, and one of them was a boy, and one was another boy. And we've seen the horrible murder of little girl babies at birth and the abortion of girl fetuses because it was just female.
And so The Carter Center started about three years ago concentrating on the abuse of girls and women. And we've had three international meetings, annually, at The Carter Center. The last one was in June. And we invite women activists from Malaysia and around the world. And we also invite in, lately, religious leaders. But after three years we have just seen how terrible the problem is, much more than I ever had dreamed. And so I decided to write a book and do a promotion schedule like I am doing right now to try to bring these abuses of women and girls to the attention of the public.
MS: What do you see as some of the most serious problems and issues that women around the world currently face?
JC: Well, the most horrible is the one I just mentioned to you - you know, we lost maybe 40 million people in the 2nd World War, and we've lost four times that many, in this generation, to the murder of little girl babies by their parents. Either after they are born they strangle them, or they kill them when they're fetuses - now that they have the sonograms available in the poorest communities and they can detect the sex of the baby before it's born. That is the most horrendous of all.
The second one is international human trafficking or slavery, which far exceeds whatever it ever was in the nineteenth century out of Africa. And this occurs in our country as well - the state department has to issue now an annual report, and they reported that 800,000 people were sold across international borders last year. And 80% of those were girls being sold into sexual slavery. Atlanta is a key place in America for this slavery because we have the biggest airport on Earth. And a lot of our passage come from the southern hemisphere. So a girl can be bought cheaply. The average price for a girl out of Africa or Latin America is only about $1,000, whereas if you get a girl out of Europe, for instance, she might cost as much as $8,000. So that means that we have a tremendous problem in this country of trafficking or human slavery. And this is worldwide.
And another thing - this happens in America of course - is a gross abuse of girls on campuses of our great universities, including the most distinguished ones of all. And these are basically unpunished because the college administrators, the presidents and deans, don't want to bring discredit to their campus by having a girl take legal action that would publicize the rape. So what happens is, and this is all covered in the book, with quoting people who know, is that the boys who are inclined toward rape, when they get on the campus, they very quickly realize they can do it with impunity. So about half of the total rapes on campuses now are done by serial rapists. But they never are punished.
And you've seen a lot of stories recently in the news about the military. A couple years ago in 2012 there were 36,000 cases of sexual abuse in the military units, and only about 300 and something of those have resulted in any punishment, which is about 1 percent.
So these are the kinds of things that go on, not only in the rich world like ours, but also multiply greatly when you get to a country that might resort to honor killing of girls because when they are raped it is a disgrace to the family, or to other matters of that kind.
MS: You can almost be in disbelief to hear the extent - what do you see as the roots of the problem in terms of starting to address it?
JC: There are two generic foundations for it that I describe in the book. One is religion. You know, if a husband is inclined to abuse his wife or if an employer, say if General Motors is inclined to pay its female employees less than a man, at least indirectly or subtly, they derive their conviction that it's not really a bad thing by the fact that a woman is treated as an inferior person in the great religions. For instance, the Catholic Church doesn't permit a woman to be a priest or a deacon. And in the Southern Baptist division where I was loyal for seventy years, a woman is deprived of those two opportunities - she can't be a chaplain in the military, and in the seminaries, that is the higher education systems in the Southern Baptist convention, a woman can't teach a classroom if a boy student is the class. So when men in secular life, who might be religious or not, see women being treated as secondary in the eyes of God, they assume that it's OK for them to do it.
And the other thing is the excessive commitment to violence in this country. We have been involved in more wars, on a bilateral basis, since the United Nations was formed than any other country by far. About thirty different times - I name a few of them in my book. And we also have the only policy in North America or NATO in the advanced world of executing people for crimes. We still have the death penalty in this country and nowhere else that we know about in this world. And we have about seven and a half times as many prisoners in jail right now in America as we had when I was a Governor. And we have about 3,200 people in prison in the United States now for life who have never committed a crime of violence. So the excessive resort to violence of all kinds, plus misinterpretation of biblical scriptures are two of the generic causes.
MS: Where do you see the entry points for creating change?
JC: I think first of all - I am not being too subjective about this - I think it's my writing this book and going out as a former President to talk about it. Because a lot of people are startled, actually, when I give them the facts that are proven, by origins in the book, sources of information, including the U.S. State Department. And I also wrote the Pope a letter, and told Pope Francis that I had met previously with his predecessor, with Pope John Paul II, about these issues. I found him to be very conservative on the issue, but I got a letter from Pope Francis, for instance, that said that he thought that there were a lot of things that are in my book with which he would help, like slavery and prostitution and things of that kind. I didn't ask him to permit women to be priests in the Catholic Church - that is too big a step to take at once. But he did respond to my letter by saying it is his opinion that in the future women needed to play a much greater role in the Catholic Church itself. Which is very encouraging to me.
And last week as you may have noticed, he appointed an eight person committee to deal with the abuse of children by priests, and four of those eight were women, which was quite startling. And one of them was a woman who had been abused by a priest when she was a child in a seminary, in a convent.
So religious leaders and political leaders - and one thing I advocate in the book - I've got twenty-three recommendations at the end of the book that deal with all the issues that I've talked about, and some that I have not that are still in the book - one of those is to take away from commanding officers in the military any right to obstruct the prosecution of an alleged rapist. Now the commanding officers can block that as you know. And the senator from New York [Senator Kirsten Gillibrand] tried to change that, unsuccessfully, although she did get 55 votes in the Senate, she didn't get the 60 required. But if our top political leaders, like the President and others would just join in, with her, which they didn't do, I think we could maybe do that. And we could do away with - or certainly reduce - the level of human trafficking or just trading in slavery that exists on a global basis.
MS: I have a new book out, What Will It Take to Make a Woman President? Conversations About Women, Leadership and Power, which was inspired by my eight -year-old daughter asking me why there had never been a woman president. Certainly as you're talking about people in positions of leadership, obviously the numbers of women are so low. Why do you think there are so few women in leadership positions and what do you think we can do to change that inequity?
JC: Well there the United States is exceptionally culpable. I think we rank about 60th in the world in the percentage of women who occupy political offices at all levels, at the local, state and national level. And on the overall ranking of women compared to men, according to the World Economic Forum - they have been doing this for seven years - the United States ranks 23rd in the world. So twenty-two other countries have a better record on giving women equal rights than men.
So this is one of the things that we do - when I became President, only three percent of the members of Congress were women. That's now been increased to about 18 percent, but we still rank below the world average of about 23 percent.
MS: A lot of times this all gets incorrectly framed as "women's issues" - why is this important? Why should people care about this issue, and how do you see the status of women as interconnected with other problems that the world faces?
JC: Well, there is no other even moderately equal abuse than the murder of little baby girls, which I've already described - nothing else compares with that, in horror. There is nothing else like that. But there is a pretty good correlation between the overall economic well being of a country and how they treat their women with the right to education, for instance, or the right to jobs. We do fairly well with that in United States - about 57% of our graduates at the Bachelors level and at the PhD level are women now. The students are, not the graduates, but the students in college right now - that's the latest statistics. But women still get 23% of the pay of an average man, and if you look at the Fortune 500 companies, only about two dozen of them have women CEOs. And at that high level, women get 42% less pay than a man.
So we still have a long way to go to correct it, and I think the only way for it to be corrected at any realm of abuse is for it to be highly publicized - by me, and by you, and by others, who are aware of the problem.
MS: I interviewed Patrick Stewart who was promoting a campaign to enlist men in helping stop violence against women, and he talked about how men must be part of the solution. Do you think many of many efforts miss the opportunity to realize that not only do we need to help the survivors of violence, but we also need to address the culture and factors that cause men and boys to commit these acts in the first place?
JC: One of the things that I have to have as a cautionary factor in my book, which we have learned from experience in the last 35 years - is if we westerners - no matter how well we are received - if we go in to a remote village in Africa and so forth and we begin to preach to them that ,'you need to stop circumcising your girls', 'you need to stop letting your little girls who are ten years be married', and so forth - it's counterproductive, they have an adverse reaction to it. And that's why we have been so careful in this book and at The Carter Center to utilize women who come from those regions, and to let them make their own recommendations.
So in a number of countries like in Liberia, right at this moment - I cover this in my book a little bit - we go into the interior of Liberia, and we get the women leaders to originate these changes themselves, and we stay out of it. We don't want our folks to go in there and tell them how to run their business. But when others try to do this - and we've learned not to do it - it just convinces them we don't want to have anybody interfere.
The circumcision of girls or the mutilation of their genitalia is not ordained in the Koran, it's not promoted by even the husband - this is a crime against girls that are perpetrated by their own mothers, alone, who were circumcised when they were children, and they think it's a proper thing to do to their little girls. And they are taught that this will decrease their daughters' enjoyment of the sex act and therefore keep them more chaste and not likely to be impregnated when they become young, unmarried girls. And this has extended now into horrendous circumstances whereby in Egypt, at this moment, almost 90% of all the women who live in Egypt now have been circumcised or have their genitalia mutilated. And they go to extremes - we have had cutters - the women who perform these operations - come to The Carter Center and testify, and some of them have given up their trade to try and end the practice. But also after they cut the little girl and remove the outer parts of her genitalia, they sew the orifice up, so she can only urinate, and then later when she's a teenager she can menstruate. And then when she gets married, they go back in with the same kind of razor blade and they cut the orifice open so she can have sex with her husband and bear children.
So this goes on worldwide in some areas. And the United Nations General Assembly have passed two official resolutions condemning it, and some countries passed laws against it, but there are countries in Africa now where 97% of the women, of all ages, women and girls are mutilated.
MS: When you hear some of facts and statistics, the problem can sound so daunting - do you feel optimistic? Sometimes I feel like people shut down when they hear some of this.
JC: Well, I think that's probably true, and you know, I have just been on radio programs and TV programs, I've been in Chicago, I've been in Washington, I've been in New York - and I don't have any doubt that people shut down and don't want to listen to it. And I think college presidents don't want to hear that girls are being abused on their own campuses - I am sure they know it. But instead of dealing with this problem in a corrective way, they call in the girls or have their deans do it, and they say, why don't we give the boy counseling, if you know who it was, and she'd say, yeah, I know he's a classmate of mine - and they don't want it to be a legal issue.
And you may have seen, or you can look up on the Internet, the abuse of a midshipman at a naval academy, just recently, where three football players raped this female midshipman. And she went through horrendous cross examination in public last August. She was put under twenty one hours of cross examination by the defenders of the football players. And she was asked 'What kind of underwear did you wear? How many times have you ever kissed a boy in an automobile? Have you had sex before? How wide do you open your mouth when you give oral sex?' She was asked those questions in public. And then they were all found innocent by the way. And so that sends a signal throughout the US military it's just a mistake for a girl to report it because her parents will find out and that sort of thing.
So this is something that could corrected. And I think the President and The Washington Post and The Huffington Post and The New York Times and so forth - I hope that they will not follow my lead, but just take it on their own.
MS: How can people get involved? What motivation, encouragement and advice would you offer to people in helping create change?
JC: If you read the final chapter of my book, there are twenty-three specific things that I recommend that a reader of the book can do. And I just mentioned a couple of them - we can support the State Department in its promulgation every year of the incidences of sexual slavery around the world. We can encourage our churches to treat women as equal in the eyes of God. We can get women activists to speak out. We can get college presidents - either to take action against rapists on their campus, or either encourage the US Department of Education to enforce Title IX, which is now being focused on this particular thing. In other words, as a threat, Title IX used to just be designed for sports, that if the university doesn't correct abuse of girls, the United States government can withhold grants, even for research, if they don't take action to protect girls. And things of this kind - but you have the whole gamut of them that can be pursued.
MS: Why are you personally so passionate about this issue?
JC: Because I think it's perhaps the most important single issue that I have ever addressed - certainly since I left the White House. Keeping my country at peace and promoting human rights around the world was important when I was president, but nothing has ever effected me more, or convinced me more, that the abuse is horrendous, and that very few people are doing anything about it, and that maybe my voice can convince people to join with us, join with The Carter Center, join with each other and let's correct some of these most horrendous abuses.
Listen to an audio excerpt from A Call to Action:
Marianne Schnall is a widely published writer and interviewer whose writings and interviews have appeared in a variety of media outlets including O, The Oprah Magazine, CNN.com, EW.com, the Women's Media Center and many others. Marianne is a featured blogger at The Huffington Post and a contributor to the nationally syndicated NPR radio show, 51 percent The Women's Perspective. She is also the co-founder and executive director of the women's website and non-profit organization Feminist.com, as well as the co-founder of the environmental site EcoMall.com. She is the author of Daring to Be Ourselves: Influential Women Share Insights on Courage, Happiness and Finding Your Own Voice based on her interviews with a variety of well-known women. Marianne's new book is What Will it Take to Make a Woman President? Conversations About Women, Leadership, and Power. You can visit her website at www.marianneschnall.com.