Shortly after leaving office in 1980, Jimmy Carter, the 39th president of the United States, established the Carter Center with his wife, Rosalynn. It’s from there that his efforts at “waging peace, fighting disease and building hope” — the center’s mission — have taken shape.
In his endeavor to advance democracies around the world, Carter has observed 100 elections in 38 countries. Renowned for projects in global health, the center counts among its greatest successes the eradication of the tropical disease Guinea worm. Collaborations between the center, ministries of health and local communities have cut the disease’s incidence from 3.5 million cases in 1986 to just 126 today. According to the center, Guinea worm is set to become the second human disease in history, after smallpox, to be eradicated.
Carter’s post-presidency has been declared by many historians as one of the most successful of any U.S. president. So you might think that after all of his achievements, which include receiving the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize and authoring 27 books, Carter would have been thinking of retiring. Well, you would be wrong. At 91 he is dedicating the remainder of his life to promoting equality for women and girls. His recent book, A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power, is a manifesto detailing the discrimination that women and girls face worldwide. Well-known as a Christian and a Bible class teacher for more than 70 years, Carter specifically challenges those who use religious texts to deny women’s equality. He writes, “Women and girls have been discriminated against too long in a twisted interpretation of the word of God. … The world’s discrimination and violence against women is the most serious, pervasive and ignored violation of human rights.”
In this issue of Stanford Medicine, Carter talked with executive editor Paul Costello about the plight of women and girls around the globe. Since their conversation early this summer, Carter announced he is being treated for cancer, and in a subsequent email, Carter wrote to Costello, he is “at ease, and grateful.”Paul Costello: Why, at 91 years old, are you making equality for women and girls the highest priority for the rest of your life?Jimmy Carter: The human rights violation of women and girls is the most serious human rights problem on Earth. At the Carter Center, we’ve had programs in 80 countries. The human rights issue was brought to a highly personal level when we saw the horrible and surprising abuse of women and girls all around the world, including in the United States.Costello: By the end of 2014, nearly 60 million people were refugees. Half were children. That’s 30 million children essentially homeless.Carter: One of the parts in my book describes a particular plight of women and children who are living in refugee camps. Quite often, the housing there is just tents with no doors to keep predators out. They just come through the flap and make life miserable for the women, who are there quite often in a defenseless way.
Most often their husbands are away and not able to protect them. That’s a special problem for women and children, not only being displaced but also without the normal protections of a house. It’s a problem for everybody who is a refugee, but I would say that, in a wartime environment, the women and children suffer most.Costello: You’ve said women and girls have been discriminated against through the misinterpretation of religious texts. What are some of the ways this plays out?Carter: In the early Christian church, until the third century after Christ, women played a very strong and dynamic role. In the 16th chapter of Romans, Paul named about 25 people who played leading roles in the early church, and almost half were women who were apostles, bishops and priests. That changed as men became dominant in the Catholic Church, which set the basis for everybody else.
When someone who has an inclination to abuse a woman, say an oppressive husband, sees that in the eyes of the church, women are inferior to God, then they assume that women are inferior to all men.Costello: You write that 14 million girls are married each year before they reach the age of 18. What are the ramifications of this?Carter: Let me give you an experience I had recently in Nepal. Young girls there are often taken from home and sent to India, either to work in brothels or sold into marriage. My wife, Rosalynn, and I met with 18 rescued girls the last time I was in Nepal. Toward the end of our long conversation, I asked them, would you rather be sold into sexual slavery in a brothel, or sold into an unwanted marriage? Unanimously, they said that forced marriage was much worse because it was permanent, they could not escape from it and it was legally binding. These girls, some only 10 or 12 years old, are sold, and are basically slaves in the household. As they get a little older, they are often abused by their oppressive husbands. This is one of the worst fates that can befall a young girl: to be sold into a marriage to a much older and abusive man.Costello: Many nations have criminalized female circumcision, yet it is still widely practiced. Why is this?Carter: Some people claim falsely that it’s ordained in scriptures, but there’s nothing in the Holy Bible and certainly nothing in the Quran that calls for it or even mentions it. In Egypt, which has a law against genital mutilation, over 90 percent of all living women and girls have been sexually mutilated. In some countries, like Djibouti or Somalia, this percentage is 98 percent.
Mothers decide that their daughters should be sexually circumcised just because they went through it. They think it’s the proper thing to do. In Egypt, girls under 15 have a substantially lower percentage of sexual mutilation than older girls. The publicity and changing international awareness is having some beneficial impact.Costello: What are some of the sensitivities that Westerners need to be especially cautious about when they’re trying to tackle these cultural customs and practices?Carter: I would say that a holier-than-thou attitude is probably the worst. You can’t go into a culture like I just described in Egypt or in the rest of Africa or Asia and say, ‘We are perfect in our country, and you need to reform the way you treat women.’
In the United States, we have a horrible problem with human trafficking. Also, in two of our most revered American institutions — our universities and our military — the abuse of women is horrendous. About one out of five girls who enters an American university is sexually assaulted before she graduates. The U.S. military has pointed out that 26,000 sexual assaults were perpetrated in the military the year before last. The State Department reported last year that 60,000 people are basically living in some form of human bondage in America. These are the kind of things of which we’re very guilty in our country, so we can’t preach to others.Costello: If you could do one thing that would forcefully change the status of women and girls around the world, what would that be?Carter: One of the main things we could do is get the United Nations Security Council to pass strong legislation, a condemnation of elements that harm girls and women. The U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women is a very wonderful expression of international commitment to do away with discrimination against women. The United States has failed to ratify that.Costello: What motivates you now? What drives your passion?Carter: I’ve always been committed to human rights, and I see the abuse of women and girls as the worst example of that on Earth. It is not being addressed adequately.
I have the influence of a former president, and I find the work of the Carter Center to be very challenging, unpredictable, adventurous and also gratifying. I enjoy being active, traveling and promoting what I consider to be the correction of violations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.