In an open forum at Yale on Dec. 2, Jimmy Carter, the 39th U.S. president, spoke about the world's discrimination and violence against women and girls, which he believes is the most serious, pervasive, and ignored violation of basic human rights.
Carter addressed a packed audience in Woolsey Hall, talking about the subject of his recent book “A Call to Arms: Women, Religion, Violence and Power,” in which he calls the discrimination and abuse of women the most serious worldwide challenge of our time. After his speech, Carter answered audience questions posed by Yale President Peter Salovey and Ernesto Zedillo, former president of Mexico and director of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, which sponsored the former president’s visit.
Carter described how — as he and his wife, Rosalynn, traveled around the world in connection with the international programs of The Carter Center — he learned of and witnessed the “deprivation of equal rights” for women and girls. He noted that in impoverished families in countries around the globe, boy children are privileged to go to school while girls are restricted from it; daughters are aborted or strangled at birth; and in 30% of African countries, women have “suffered the abuse” of genital mutilation. In Egypt alone, Carter commented, 91% of all females experienced genital mutilation.
In addition, he said, while Americans fought the Civil War to end slavery, there are now more people being sold involuntarily across international borders than in either of the 18th and 19th centuries. Carter announced that 80% of those are females being sold into sexual slavery. Nearly 250 women are sold into slavery every month in Atlanta, Georgia, he told his audience.
“These facts are hard to believe, but they should be ever-present in your mind,” Carter told his audience.
He compared the abuse and discrimination of women and girls to the institution of slavery and the “separate but equal” policy of racial discrimination in the United States, and said that some of the blame for its pervasiveness rests with the notion advanced by some religions that women “are inferior in the eyes of God.” Carter recounted how he and First Lady Rosalynn Carter ended their own affiliation with a Southern Baptist church for ascribing to that view, noting that it is also used to justify the discrimination of women in the workplace.
Carter said that in his own study of the Bible, he has not read one reference in the New Testament that derogates women. “Jesus Christ never treated women as inferior,” he said, adding, “In most cases, he exalted them.” Similarly, he said, there is nothing in Islamic faith that derogates women “except as interpreted by men.”
At home in the United States, the former president said, the mistreatment of women pervades two “revered” institutions: college campuses and the military.
“One out of 10 girls who enter American universities will be raped before she graduates,” Carter stated, later adding, “But most university leaders don’t want it known that on their on their campus such a thing takes place.” He claimed that 41% of American universities have not reported a single case of sexual assault in the last five years.
In the military, where commanding officers make the decision whether to allow a sexual assault complaint to be reported, many choose to ignore the complaint, Carter said. Of 26,000 cases of sexual assault reported in the military in one period, only 310 individuals were punished for the assault, he added.
“Why should women have their sexually organs mutilated?" Carter asked his audience. “Why should girls be sexually assaulted on American university campuses with a perpetrator not punished?”
Carter continued, “This is a challenge for all of us, like slavery or racial discrimination was, or ‘separate but equal.’ This is a problem for us to face. The question is: Do we have the courage to do it? Do we men want to give up special privileges we have?”
In a question-and-answer session that followed his talk, Carter was asked what inspired him to spend most of his life as public servant and humanitarian. The former president answered that he believes that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1948 and guarantees the rights of every individual in the world, expresses the highest ideals of humanity. “I try to live by that,” he stated.
The 90-year-old Carter also answered some questions about events of his presidency, including the Camp David peace accord and the conflict with Iran, and his current perspectives on them. He bowed to and smiled at his audience during the two standing ovations he received in the auditorium.