By Karin D. Ryan, Senior Adviser for Human Rights at The Carter Center
“Ask yourself: what can I do personally to alleviate the horrendous persecution…discrimination and even murder of my fellow human beings who just happen to be female? I don’t know of a more important human rights cause that anyone can undertake.”
– Jimmy Carter, November 19, 2014
The 39th President of the United States issued this call last year before a packed house of students, faculty and the public at the Memorial Church on the campus of Harvard University. He had been invited by Harvard Divinity School to speak about his book, “A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence and Power”, published last year. His speech that day was among many he has made over the past year to audiences at the nation’s top universities, to the Islamic Society of North America’s annual convention in Detroit, the American Academy of Religion annual convention in San Diego, just to name a few. He has also appeared on most of the top television networks with the same message, including extended interviews with Piers Morgan, Charlie Rose, David Letterman (who was rendered uncharacteristically speechless by Carter’s tales of suffering of women and girls—“Is this 2014 and we are still talking about this?” he asked), and Stephen Colbert (who, while in character, challenged Carter to convert to Catholicism—to which the former President replied: “I will if a woman priest invites me!”), and others. His message was the same: violence against women and girls is the most serious and unaddressed violation of human rights on earth.
Every one of his speeches and appearances is filled with horrifying statistics, his personal observations based on many decades of public service, and a call to action. The purpose of this article is to encourage everyone who reads it to consider what action he or she can take in their own life to be part of the solution. It can seem overwhelming, but our hope is that every person can find a way to be involved, and hopefully to encourage others along the way as well. We have developed The Forum on Women, Religion, Violence & Power at The Carter Center, a new website that we hope can serve as a vehicle for encouragement and effective collaboration. Over the coming year, new features will be added to this end.
The numbers are staggering, and for some reason, they hit you even harder when coming from a former American President, who was once one of the most powerful human beings on the planet. At this stage of his life, having reached ninety years old, he has concluded that this is the most urgent and ignored problem we face. After all, if half of the world’s population is automatically kept down, limited by gender bias in their ability to be free from violence and to access the pathways to freedom and prosperity, then every problem becomes harder to solve. It’s no surprise that Carter’s proclamation to this effect took David Letterman’s breath away. Here are some statistics cited in the book and during Carter’s appearances:
- 160 million girls are missing from the face of the earth–murdered at or before birth by their parents because they were female. Carter explains that this is the result of the belief that boys will better serve the economic fortunes of these families.
- 1 in 3 women will face intimate partner violence in her lifetime and 1 in 5 young women will be sexually assaulted or raped on American college campuses.
- Nearly 30 million people are enslaved throughout the world—800,000 are sold across international borders every year, 80% of which are women and girls, and three-quarters of those are sold into the sex trade.
- The incarceration rate for black women in the United States has increased by 800 percent since Carter was in the White House! (Emphasis Carter’s)
- Women in the United States earn about 23% less than men for similar work and the pay gap is even worse for top corporate jobs, where recent figures show only 21 women were among Fortune 500 CEOs, earning an average of 42 percent less in compensation.
And on, and on go the depressing facts.
President Carter also points vividly to two underlying reasons for these catastrophic statistics: the misinterpretation of scriptures by male religious leaders of various faiths in favor of male superiority over women; and the acceptance of violence in society as normal, including in our culture, criminal justice system (death penalty, mass incarceration for non-violent offenses, etc.) and in our foreign policy, citing our reliance on unjustified warfare to solve our differences with other nations and groups.
But, instead of reading my explanation of why you should care about this and what you can do about it, I am going to ask you first to stop reading and take 11 minutes and 51 seconds of your time to listen to Jimmy Carter’s own overview of these issues that he addresses in his book. I promise that it will be worth your time. Even though I worked closely with him on the production of this book and am very familiar with its contents, I still react with astonishment when I listen to him describe the scope and scale of both the suffering, as well as his diagnosis of the root causes of these realities. It is this combination of symptoms and underlying causes that is most impressive. After all, if we are just tending to the suffering of humanity (which we must do), without also addressing the causes, then we will only be treating the symptoms while ignoring the disease. And we will not be able to tell our children that we had the courage to tackle the mess of a world we have handed over to them. By addressing both aspects, President Carter gives us needed context and also encouraging examples of what can be done to put us on the path to progress. After listening to the audio excerpt from the book, I will suggest a number of steps to get the reader started on a personal action plan.
But first, listen to the audio excerpt here.
Now that you have listened to President Carter in his own voice and in his own words, you might be wondering how you can get involved.
Below is a list of 23 actions items included in the final section of President Carter’s book “A Call to Action.” Any one of these suggestions can take many years, or even a lifetime of dedicated activity to achieve. What matters is taking the first steps toward meaningful and fulfilling engagement, and then sticking with it over time.
First: pick the issue you care about. Are you worried about the 15 million girls that are married off before the age of 18 worldwide, or about the apparent epidemic of domestic violence or sexual assault on college campuses in the U.S.? Which problem speaks to your heart?
If you want suggestions about which issues are most urgent, you might want to know about The Carter Center’s recent work. Earlier this month, The Carter Center hosted its annual Human Rights Defenders Forum, where at least six of the action items were explored in depth by human rights defenders, religious leaders and policymakers. Elevating women’s leadership in solving societal violence and political conflicts, including violent extremism, was a particular focus, and a new recommendation emerged: the passage of the Women, Peace and Security Act.
You can read the policy brief that we presented to US policymakers during the preparations for the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism. We are calling for Congress to pass this bill as soon as possible so that women peacemakers in Iraq, Libya, Nigeria and elsewhere, can receive moral and financial support. You can help with this effort immediately by writing to your elected representatives.
Second: do your research. A quick internet search will produce a list of organizations that are working on the issue you care about. Later in 2015, we will launch a “Collaboration Tool” on The Forum on Women, Religion, Violence & Power that will help connect individuals with common interests and in order to share resources. In the meantime, many groups offer opportunities to volunteer or contribute in a variety of ways.
Third: be a leader. Every one of us has the ability to lead by example. If we are active, it can be inspiring to others in our lives, including our family members, to become more active as well. My two sons, ages 22 and 10, have become both interested and active in my work, simply by attending events with me, through deep family discussions about the issues, and as a result of interacting with other dynamic people who are working courageously for change. Optimism and dynamism, combined with the real challenge of tackling really tough problems is something that is really appealing to many people these days, especially young people, given the state of our world.
I want to share one suggestion that was made by Ritu Sharma, author of the excellent book “Teach a Woman to Fish.” Ritu has worked for many years in Washington D.C. to support legislation that will provide real support for grass roots women leaders in many countries. She suggested getting a group of friends together for a relaxing and fun dinner party or wine tasting, etc., where a group of friends bring their best, even scented, stationery. Over wine, coffee or whatever will bring your friends to your place, write personal letters to your Members of Congress or the President. Tell them personal stories in your own words about why they should pass the Women, Peace and Security Act, the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA) or the UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Explain how these important steps will help specific women that you know about. Our policy brief and Ritu’s book both have great stories and information you could cite. Elected leaders are inundated with online petitions these days, and hand written personal letters from constituents really stand out. And of course, it’s even better if, after your fun evening, your friends and you show up at their offices and ask for a meeting. Politicians actually do meet with their constituents, especially persistent ones.
Fourth: be persistent. The problems we are addressing have existed for a very long time, and it will take time to see real and sustainable progress. What we have learned from other social justice movements is that both persistent and consistent action is needed for progress to be achieved. Building activism into your life can be challenging, but it will be highly rewarding.
Fifth: tell stories, look for good news and celebrate victories, no matter how small. It’s important to shed light on successes, even if they seem small. It’s very hard to sustain a commitment to a cause when the only thing we focus on is the bad news. The truth is that there are truly heroic efforts being carried out every day and there are many victories worthy of recognition. Real gains are being made by amazing individuals and groups, like Tostan in Senegal, which has helped thousands of villages in West Africa eliminate female genital cutting through its social transformation programs.
Sixth: share your knowledge and ideas—stay in touch. As you become more and more knowledgeable about the issues you are working on, share that knowledge with others through various networks and relationships. Through the Forum on Women and other websites, networking and sharing of resources can help us avoid duplication and pool our talents. “Many hands make light work.”
Let’s start on this final item together. In the comments section for this article, please share with us how you plan to respond to Jimmy Carter’s call to action. I invite readers to tell us what activities they have taken on. We will respond to these comments and will do our best to answer questions and offer suggestions and feedback.
We are very happy to welcome you, and all those whom you will bring with you, into this movement for justice and non-violent solutions.
President Carter suggests 23 steps that can help blaze the road to progress:
- 1. Encourage women and girls, including those not abused, to speak out more forcefully, and protect those who do speak out from retaliation.
2. Remind political and religious leaders of the abuses and what they can do to alleviate them.
3. Encourage these same leaders to become supporters of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and other U.N. agencies that advance human rights and peace.
4. Encourage religious and political leaders to relegate warfare and violence to a last resort as a solution to terrorism and national security challenges.
5. Abandon the death penalty and seek to rehabilitate criminals instead of relying on excessive incarceration, especially for nonviolent offenders.
6. Marshal the efforts of women officeholders and first ladies, and encourage involvement of prominent civilian women in correcting abuses.
7. Induce individual nations to elevate the end of human trafficking to a top priority, as they did to end slavery in the nineteenth century.
8. Help remove commanding officers from control over cases of sexual abuse in the military so that professional prosecutors can take action.
9. Apply title IX protection for women students and evolve laws and procedures in all nations to reduce the plague of sexual abuse on university campuses.
10. Include women’s rights specifically in new U.N. Millennium Development Goals.
11. Expose and condemn infanticide of baby girls and selective abortion of female fetuses.
12. Explore alternatives to battered women’s shelters, such as installing GPS locators on male abusers, and make police reports of spousal abuse mandatory.
13. Strengthen U.N. and other legal impediments to genital mutilation, child marriage, trafficking, and other abuses of girls and women.
14. Increase training of midwives and other health workers to provide care at birth.
15. Help scholars working to clarify religious beliefs on protecting women’s rights and nonviolence, and give activists and practitioners access to such training resources.
16. Insist that the U.S. Senate ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
17. Insist that the United States adopt the International Violence Against Women Act.
18. Encourage more qualified women to seek public office, and support them.
19. Recruit influential men to assist in gaining equal rights for women.
20. Adopt the Swedish model by prosecuting pimps, brothel owners, and male customers, not the prostitutes.
21. Publicize and implement U.N. Security Resolution 1325, which encourages the participation of women in peace efforts.
22. Publicize and implement U.N. Security Resolution 1820, which condemns the use of sexual violence as a tool of war.
23. Condemn and outlaw honor killings.