"All of my passion and all of my strength will go into this, for the rest of my life." In an interview with Annick Cojean from M, Le Monde’s magazine, Jimmy Carter discusses his work to end discrimination and abuses against women and his new book on the issue, A Call to Action.
He sent his book to all world leaders, "187," he specifies. Seven decades in politics, travels in 145 countries, contacts everywhere and with different generations, and working for the past 32 years for his foundation with the most vulnerable people around the world, have convinced him that one of the most urgent priorities for change in the world, a subject that is "more serious than all of the others, with terrible consequences but which no one is dealing with seriously yet," is the issue of sexual inequality and the suffering inflicted on women and on girls. His book, A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power, offers the evidence and attempts an explanation, in assertive terms. "It's not a so-called woman's issue," he insists. "All of society is affected by what is both an injustice and a tragedy." Make no mistake: Jimmy Carter is on a crusade. "All of my passion and all of my strength will go into this, for the rest of my life."
His smile has changed little since his election to the White House, in the wake of the scandal-ridden Nixon. His eyes are bright, his handshake warm, his voice confident. His silhouette is a little stooped and his hair is a little thinner. But the drive, enthusiasm, and belief underpinning his causes remain intact. All with a certain youthful quality. And with that total absence of cynicism of his, which his detractors have always mocked but which continues to rally – and bond – a loyal team for decades.
His presidency was short because a series of crises – the hostages held at the US embassy in Tehran, Soviet involvement in Afghanistan, the second oil crisis, and a failing economy – affected his re-election, allowing the Reagan tornado to have long-lasting effects on America. But his post-presidency, designed to be a mission for peace and for great humanitarian causes rather than a retirement, is undoubtedly one of the richest and most active in history. On the day following his defeat, he vowed in front of the media to never make money "off the back of his presidency." True to his promise, in the footsteps of Harry Truman whom he greatly admires, and unlike most other ex-presidents who accumulate attendance fees for board meetings and/or join the narrow club of speakers who command hundreds of thousands of dollars buzzing around the world like Clinton, Blair... or Sarkozy.
Twisting religious texts
No, this is definitely not Jimmy Carter's style, who fled Washington immediately to return to live in his childhood village of Plains in Georgia, where his family had a peanut farm, joining the faculty of Emory University in Atlanta and, with his wife Rosalynn, who is four years younger than him, setting up a foundation which currently employs 175 people and has already worked in 80 countries. This is The Carter Center, whose stated aims are the peaceful resolution of conflicts, electoral monitoring in the world's most troubled areas, defending and promoting human rights, protecting the environment, and eliminating diseases which are frequently overlooked but which affect the poorest of all (guinea worm, elephantiasis, and river blindness).
It is in this context that Carter has been an international activist for three decades, a free and unpredictable agent jumping from country to country, meeting leaders and their opponents, activists and other militants, recruiting doctors, building houses, comforting victims, annoying his successors spectacularly while successfully carrying out sensitive mediation missions in North Korea, Bosnia, or Haiti, and continuing to play an influential role as a member of The Elders, a group of retired political figures founded by Nelson Mandela. This is, of course, light years removed from George W Bush - whom he once called "the worst president in all of American history" – who lives in retirement, at his Texas ranch, and is finally able to express his meagre talent as an amateur artist.
So, to women. Carter could speak for hours about their misery, their humiliations and their suffering, armed with statistics, reports and examples from country to country if it wasn't for the watchful press secretary and secret service agents who keep his travels running to a timed schedule. In Paris for two days to meet with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Laurent Fabius, and with students from Sciences Po on the topic of climate change – an issue which The Elders are tackling – he becomes animated when talking about his book. "I witnessed as a child the effects of racism in my native homeland in the South. And I saw how a society could accept the idea that black people were inferior to white people, with Biblical quotations at the ready to support these views. Well, discrimination against women is the same kind of thing. And it doesn't just affect one region, or societies with extreme poverty, but the whole world. It's at the root of heinous crimes, slavery, mutilation, rape, human trafficking and, regardless of the country, differences in salary for doing the same work. All of this is founded on the premise, one that is thousands of years old and is supported by religious men who misinterpret sacred texts, that women are inferior to men." Many men don't agree with this, he adds. But they remain silent "so that they can enjoy their dominant status." Carter does not engage in doublespeak.
Religious leaders of every persuasion have been invited to the Carter Center. Notably the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Sunni spiritual leader, who has reiterated on many occasions that nothing in the Koran – which Carter has studied – establishes the inferiority of women. And the former president often encourages him to address this topic. A devout Baptist from his childhood, he left his own congregation in 2000 when, on the basis of a text in St Paul, it dictated that wives should be subject to their husbands and could not be a priest or deacon of any kind, or teach boys.
"What deception," notes Carter who continues to teach the Bible on Sundays in his little church in Plains. "This way of twisting texts or using the verse which suits them out of context. Let us trust in Jesus who never discriminated against women, in word or deed. On the contrary: he never stopped defending them or highlighting them. He was a feminist, you know!" While he was working on his book, he wrote to Pope Francis, whose reputation he already knew from Argentina as a "champion of human rights", in order to ask his help in ending discrimination against women. "He replied back with a lovely letter stating that the time was in fact right for women to play a greater role in the Catholic Church." And he notes with satisfaction that the Pope subsequently appointed four women to the eight-member committee working on sexual abuse committed by priests against children, one of whom is herself a survivor of abuse. "This is encouraging."
"Because it is urgently needed," he insists, amazed that most rulers have not yet fully grasped the extent of this "breach of human rights which is probably the most serious in all history." You want facts? He has many at hand. And first of all this horrific figure of 160 million missing girls. Murdered at birth or terminated because an ultrasound scan showed the foetus was female. "160 million! The equivalent of a generation of girls wiped off from the face of the earth. A statistic which should be compared with the 40 million people killed during World War II and the 6 million Jewish victims. How can we not do something?"
Because, in addition to the horror of crimes generally committed by the parents' own hands (many strangulations), the consequences are terrible: 100 girls for every 118 boys in China, for every 113 in India, and every 154 in some regions... This results in a drastic lack of wives, kidnappings, and trafficking in women, and a growth in prostitution. "If we give girls the same education and the same employment opportunities that boys have, they would be as able as their brothers to look after their parents later on. And this prospect would comfort them." Another example: sexual mutilations. How can we accept the fact that, according to the World Health Organisation, 125 million women have been circumcised, particularly in Muslim countries? 88 per cent of women are in Sudan, 91 per cent in Egypt, 96 per cent in Guinea, and 98 per cent in Somalia. The justification is for a "purification" or for removing any sexual pleasure. It is in no way required by the Koran. What to do? Western judgements or pressure coming from outside prove to be counter-productive, asserts Carter. "The refusal must come from the women themselves, the mothers with whom we must instil the idea they have fundamental rights, something they've never been told before, and that one of these rights is the right not to be circumcised." Again, education.
Modern day slavery
Slavery? Let's talk about it, says Carter, who confesses in his book that his great great grandfather Wiley owned several slaves on his death, which happened during the first year of the American Civil War. The end of the war seemed to signal the end of the phenomenon. A mistake. There has never been as many slaves in the world (around 30 million) nor more people being part of, against their will, cross-border trafficking. 800,000 a year, according to the American State Department, 80 per cent of whom are women or small girls, mainly destined for sexual slavery. 7,000 little Nepalese girls are imported to India every year; 200,000 are currently already working in brothels there.
As to America, the central hub for trafficking is to be found at Atlanta, where between 200 and 300 children are sold each month. "No one is doing anything? We'll see. Such an embarrassment for a country to have to admit that this kind of slavery is happening. However, it's a fact: the sex trade in Georgia reported 290 million dollars passing hands, more than twice that of drug trafficking."
Child marriages, honour crimes, war rapes, sexual assaults of all kinds... The former American president imperturbably carries on the long litany of crimes: more than a third of women, according to the World Health Organization, are victims of physical or sexual violence, the large majority committed by their partner. A quarter of American women are, at any time in their lives, victims of domestic violence... Intolerable, he says. Particularly as the two "most revered institutions in America," the army and universities, have also been affected by numerous rapes. "14,000 cases of aggression within the American army during 2013. But barely more than 1 per cent of these ever reach court." It's the same problem in universities, where chancellors have accused Carter of undermining their reputation. "This is absurd," he says. "They would do better by tackling the problem head on. To encourage young women to file charges rather than be denigrated and their aggressors defended as long as they’re white and football champions."
A woman is putting herself forward to be a Democratic candidate at the next presidential election. Are you ready to support Hillary Clinton, President Carter? Here, he dodges the issue. "That will depend on who the other candidate is. Because we've already seen women occupying high positions of government without ever furthering women's rights. Remember Indira Gandhi?" A female president will therefore have this task? "Yes! It'd be an exceptional chance to be able to do it. Obama took a strong stand on black rights, which is astounding. Well, I think that any woman elected to an important official position must be prepared to uncover the widespread nature of discrimination against women."
President Obama has not given his reaction to Jimmy Carter's book. Which does not surprise him. Relations between the current and former president are hardly warm and Carter's criticisms of the Guantanamo Bay disaster, the drone campaigns which affect so many civilians in Yemen and Pakistan, and the frequent breaches of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights in the name of anti-terrorism have not helped at all. But the summits, forums, and groups of women all acclaim him, such as long-standing feminists like Gloria Steinem, who lavished praise on him for having written one of the most courageous and complete books about the injustices suffered by "half of heaven". The end of the work offers 23 recommendations that The Carter Center, now deeply mobilised on the question of women, is going to support and promote. It is also counting on the support of The Elders.
Jason Carter, one of his grandsons, is currently on the campaign trail for the post of Governor of Georgia. On his Facebook page on 8 April, he wrote: "We're no longer in the 1960s, yet women still earn on average 23 per cent less than men for the same job. Mothers and women of colour earn even less. It’s time this madness ended!" It seems Jimmy's legacy is secure.