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A call to action: end discrimination against women

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"We are calling on all those with influence to challenge and change the harmful teachings and practices – in religious and secular life – that justify discrimination against women." In an excerpt from his new book, Jimmy Carter discusses The Elders' efforts to address the root causes of violence against women and campaign against child marriage.

Today Jimmy Carter launches his new book, A Call To Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power. Drawing on the testimony of women human rights defenders and his own experiences, he explains why discrimination against women and girls is the most serious global challenge we face.

In a chapter on child marriage and dowry deaths, President Carter discusses The Elders' role in creating the global Girls Not Brides partnership:

Jimmy Carter book cover: A Call to Action

I am a member of The Elders, a group of former political leaders, peace activists, and human rights advocates who were brought together by Nelson Mandela in 2007. The goal Mandela set for us was to use our “almost 1,000 years of collective experience” to work on solutions for problems involving peace, human rights, climate change and disease.

One of the criteria we adopted is to be free of political pressures by not holding public office, but all of us have had experience in high positions.

The Elders have been active in attempts to promote peace and human rights in the Middle East, Sudan and South Sudan, North and South Korea, Zimbabwe, Cyprus, Kenya, Egypt and Myanmar, and in addressing the impending disaster of global warming. But one of our most challenging and exciting commitments has been to promote equality for women and girls.

We had an extensive debate when I presented my concerns about the adverse impact of religious beliefs on women’s rights to this group of fellow leaders and advisors in 2008, because they represent practising Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and Hindus, and their faiths have different policies about the status of women. We finally decided to draw particular attention to the role of religious and traditional leaders in obstructing the campaign for equality and human rights and promulgated the following statement:

“The justification of discrimination against women and girls on grounds of religion or tradition, as if it were prescribed by a Higher Authority, is unacceptable."

Having served as local, state, national, and world leaders, we understand why many public officials can be reluctant to question ancient religious and traditional premises – an arena of great power and sensitivity.

We are calling on all those with influence to challenge and change the harmful teachings and practices – in religious and secular life – that justify discrimination against women, and to acknowledge and emphasise the positive messages of equality and human dignity.

After The Elders agreed to adopt the eradication of gender abuse as a priority project in 2008, it soon became obvious that the greatest opportunity for our group to make a direct and immediate contribution was by concentrating on child marriage. The Elders formed a global partnership with about three hundred non-governmental organisations from more than fifty countries that share the commitment to end child marriage. We named this coalition Girls Not Brides, and it grew to such an extent that it was separated into an independent organisation in 2013, with The Elders still fully supportive of its goals. All the NGO partners are continuing work in their own areas, and substantial progress is being made in raising international concern about the issue. Plans have been announced to raise the subject with the UN Human Rights Council, with the hope of reaching a General Assembly resolution condemning the practice.

In the meantime other action is being taken. In 2013 Human Rights Watch released a ninety-five page report on South Sudan that documents the near total lack of protection for girls and women who try to resist marriage or leave abusive marriages and the obstacles they face in achieving any relief from their plight. The US Congress has passed a law that requires the inclusion of child marriage in its annual Human Rights Report and mandates that the Secretary of state develop a strategy to prevent child marriage, including diplomatic and programme initiatives. Both the United Nations and the World Bank have announced commitments to publicise the problem and to induce nations to end the practice.

There are many encouraging developments; one is a special effort to assess the links between child marriage and slavery and to sharpen national and local laws so they are more specific and punitive when girls are forced to act against their will. Despite the persistence of the practice in many communities, these efforts have had some tangible benefits. In ninety-two countries surveyed in 2005, 48 per cent of women forty-five to forty-nine years old were married as children, but the proportion is only 35 per cent for women who are now twenty to twenty-four. The trend is good news, but the number is still far too high!

A Call to Action © 2014 by Jimmy Carter. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc, NY.

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