Abuse of women 'most serious worldwide challenge' - Carter
False interpretation of religious texts partly to blame for intolerance, says former US president
Former US president Jimmy Carter: ‘When I read every word in the Bible about Jesus Christ, he never once insinuated that women were inferior to me.’ Photograph: Jemal Countess/Getty Images
Jimmy Carter doesn’t sugar-coat it – the number of females either aborted or strangled at birth in countries where the subjugation of women is at its most horrific is estimated to amount to four times the number of lives lost in the second World War.
A champion of peace and equality during his presidency and after, the former US leader and 2002 Nobel Peace laureate offers this shocking statistic first to make his point on the violence against women. Mr Carter, who turns 90 this year, has tackled the subject of inequality and violence towards females in a new book, his 26th to be published since leaving the White House in 1981.
Mr Carter states boldly in A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence and Power that the “most serious and unaddressed worldwide challenge is the deprivation and abuse of women and girls”.
He blames a “false interpretation of carefully selected religious texts and a growing tolerance of violence and warfare, unfortunately following the example set during my lifetime by the United States”.
While many of the facts and figures Mr Carter lays out in his 211-page book are not new, listing the abuses against womenmakes for alarming reading.
From sexual mutilation to honour killings, from unreported rapes on university campuses to mass rapes in war zones such as Rwanda, Bosnia and Sierra Leone, from sharp gender disparities in politics to unequal pay for female Fortune 500 bosses, the statistics make Mr Carter’s point more than compelling. “When you add them all together it shows women are constantly being harassed, deprived of equal pay for work and they are persecuted,” he said in an interview in Washington.
Asked how the US has misinterpreted religious texts to undermine women’s rights, Mr Carter points to the change in policy by Southern Baptists banning women from being priests, pastors or deacons and their use of a verse in the Bible to prevent women teaching in a classroom where there is a male student. The former Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher has dissociated himself from that church.
Likewise, the Catholic Church is wrong in preventing females from becoming priests or deacons, he says, but he is very encouraged by a recent letter he received from Pope Francis, in which the pontiff said the role of women in the Catholic Church “should be enhanced in the future”.
Mr Carter believes there is a possibility the church might allow female deacons during Francis’s papacy.
“When I read every word in the Bible about Jesus Christ, he never once insinuated that women were inferior to me. In fact, he exalted the status of women far above what anyone had in history. I think most of the time St Paul does the same,” says the former peanut farmer from Georgia.
In the book, Mr Carter talks about the racial inequality growing up in the American south where his was the only white family among a community of 55 black families. African-Americans were deprived of basic human rights for 100 years after slavery was abolished, he says.
“We had very distinguished religious leaders come to our church to say God ordained or mandated that whites were superior to black people,” he says.
While many white people opposed racial discrimination, they did not act as they benefited from better jobs and better education. “That is the way it goes now with the subjugation of women.”
In US politics, Mr Carter says when he was elected president in 1976 there were 3 per cent of women in Congress but that this increased to 18 per cent in the 2012 elections, though this is still well below the proportion of elected women in Rwanda, Cuba and five Scandinavian countries.
The 2016 presidential election may change the statistic for female representation at the highest level of American politics. The prospect of a female president being elected is good, says Mr Carter.
“I thought they were good in the last presidential election when Obama and Mrs Clinton were contending with each other,” he said. “He prevailed but I think looking two or three years in the future it looks like Mrs Clinton is the pre-eminent Democratic candidate.”