We've all heard the horror stories of roadside bombs, rapes, acid attacks and gunshots used as weapons of war against women. Yet, many of those events seem detached from our daily lives here in America. Although a brave Pakistani schoolgirl named Malala Yousafzai became 2012's poster child among the international aid community for empowering women to take a stand against violence and religious oppression, it took this spring's celebrity-driven "One Billion Rising," with its infectious flash mob erupting in major cities like Atlanta, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., to hammer home the idea that -- even in 2013 -- women everywhere must continue to stand in solidarity against violence, abuse and inequality. We also need men on our side.
Jimmy Carter agrees.
The former U.S. president believes "the most pervasive and unaddressed human rights violation" in the world is the abuse of women, and that it persists today in most countries on earth. On June 28 at the Carter Center in Atlanta, Carter gathered more than 60 scholars and religious and civic leaders from several continents for a forum to discuss how to mobilize the advancement of women's rights and the prevention of abuse -- and to change perceptions, especially among male religious leaders.
"There is a great aversion among men leaders and even some women leaders to admit that this [abuse] is something that exists, that it's serious, troubling -- and should be addressed," Carter told the group, seated in roundtable style in the Center's Cecil B. Day Chapel. He says many religious leaders try to convince their fellow worshippers "that women are inferior in the eyes of God" and then extract and distort verses or scripture to justify the dominance of men. Carter also spoke against religious practices that promote genital cutting and child marriage.
Jimmy Carter didn't just give a speech at his "Mobilizing Faith for Women" forum; he remained throughout the day for nearly 10 hours of discussions. There was a sense of breakthrough in the air as participants such as Zainah Anwar (Sisters in Islam), Mona Rishmawi (Office of the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights), Simone Campbell (Network's Nuns on the Bus), and Ritu Sharma (Women Thrive Worldwide) offered faith-based perspectives on how to incorporate community action into reducing violence against women, human trafficking, and the impact of war on women. The recurring theme/question of the day: "If women are equals in the eyes of God, how can we not be equal in the eyes of men?"
Carter, who's been outspoken about the relationship between religion and women's equality since his advocacy for the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s and more recently in his role as a member of The Elders, reminded conference participants that it's not just physical abuse that holds women back, but also a universal lack of opportunity. His case in point: The U.S. ranks 77th in the world for number of seats held by women in a congress or parliament (in 2013, only 18 percent of U.S. Congress members are female). Religious voting bodies, Carter adds, often have an even lower percentage of women in positions of power. Carter used his own church, Maranatha Baptist in Plains, Georgia as an example: after breaking from the Southern Baptist Convention in 2000, Maranatha installed a female pastor and equal numbers of male and female deacons (of which former First Lady Rosalynn Carter is one).
Karin Ryan, Director of the Carter Center's Human Rights Program, introduced Carter as the American leader who "put human rights at the center of his Presidency." Throughout the discussions, Carter referred to the Bible, the Quran, and 1948's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, credited in part to the activism of Eleanor Roosevelt at the United Nations. At several points, he even held up a copy of the UN Declaration, noting that it was endorsed internationally, and read articles specific to issues regarding gender equality. "Equal rights are the foundation for freedom and peace in the world," he concluded.
In one of her many prominent speeches, Eleanor Roosevelt spoke of her belief that human rights "begin small places, close to home -- so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world." For Carter, that place close to home is the space for faith. If women are to achieve equality in any society, he says, education of religious leaders must play a role. "We must arm them with new ammunition to address this evil [abuse of women]. Progress must be pursued with courage and commitment. I hope this event strengthens all of us to speak out."