More Links in News & Events

Jimmy Carter: Why I Believe the Mistreatment of Women is the Number One Human Rights Abuse

The following is a transcript of the talk given by Jimmy Carter at a TEDWomen conference.

Thinking about my career since I left the White House, I'm reminded of a cartoon I saw in The New Yorker a couple of years ago. This little boy is looking up at his father and says, "Daddy, when I grow up, I want to be a former president."

Well, as a former president, I have been blessed to have access that very few other people in the world have had to get to know so many people around this whole universe. Not only am I familiar with the 50 states in the United States, but also my wife and I have visited more than 145 countries in the world, and The Carter Center has had full-time programs in 80 nations. A lot of times when we go into a country, we not only meet the king or the president, but we also meet the villagers who live in the most remote areas.

Our overall commitment at The Carter Center is to promote human rights, and knowing the world as I do, I can tell you without any equivocation that the number-one abuse of human rights on Earth, strangely not addressed quite often, is the abuse of women and girls.

There are a couple of reasons for this that I'll mention to begin with. First of all is the misinterpretation of religious scriptures - holy scriptures in the Bible, Old Testament, New Testament, Quran, and so forth - and these have been misinterpreted by men who are now in the ascendant positions in the synagogues and the churches and in the mosques. And they interpret these rules to make sure that women are ordinarily relegated to a secondary position compared to men in the eyes of God.

This is a very serious problem, which usually is not addressed. A number of years ago, in the year 2000, I had been a Southern Baptist for 70 years - I still teach Sunday school every Sunday - but the Southern Baptist Convention in the year 2000 decided that women should play a secondary position, a subservient position to men. So they issued an edict, in effect, that prevents women from being priests, pastors, deacons in the church, or chaplains in the military. If a woman teaches a classroom in a Southern Baptist seminary, they cannot teach if a boy is in the room, because you can find verses in the Bible - there are over 30,000 of them - that say that a woman shouldn't teach a man, and so forth. But the basic thing is the scriptures are misinterpreted to keep men in an ascendant position. That is an all-pervasive problem, because men can exert that power, and if an abusive husband or an employer, for instance, wants to cheat women, they can say that if women are not equal in the eyes of God, why should I treat them as equals myself? Why should I pay them equal pay for doing the same kind of work?

The other very serious blight that causes this problem is the excessive resort to violence, and that is increasing tremendously around the world. In the United States of America, for instance, we have had an enormous increase in abuse of poor people, mostly black people and minorities, by putting them in prison. When I was governor of Georgia, one out of every 1,000 Americans was in prison. Nowadays, 7.3 people per 1,000 are in prison. That's a sevenfold increase. And since I left the White House, there's been an 800 percent increase in the number of women who are black who are in prison. We also are one of the only developed countries on Earth that still has the death penalty. And we rank right alongside the countries that are most abusive in all elements of human rights in encouraging the death penalty. We're in California now, and I figured out the other day that California has spent $4 billion in convicting 13 people for the death penalty. If you add that up, that's $307 million it costs California to send a person to be executed. Nebraska this week just passed a law abolishing the death penalty, because it costs so much. (Applause) So the resort to violence and abuse of poor people and helpless people is another cause of the increase in abuse of women.

Let me just go down a very few abuses of women that concern me most, and I'll be fairly brief, because I have a limited amount of time, as you know.

One is genital mutilation. Genital mutilation is horrible and not known by American women. But in some countries, many countries, when a child is born that's a girl, very soon in her life, her genitals are completely cut away by a so-called cutter who has a razor blade and, in a non-sterile way, removes the exterior parts of a woman's genitalia. And sometimes, in more extreme cases but not very rare cases, they sew the orifice up so the girl can just urinate or menstruate. And then later, when she gets married, the same cutter goes in and opens the orifice up so she can have sex. This is not a rare thing, although it's against the law in most countries. In Egypt, for instance, 91 percent of all the females that live in Egypt today have been sexually mutilated in that way. In some countries, it's more than 98 percent of the women are cut that way before they reach maturity. This is a horrible affliction on all women that live in those countries.

Another very serious thing is honor killings, where a family through misinterpretation, again, of a holy scripture - there's nothing in the Quran that mandates this - will execute a girl in their family if she is raped or if she marries a man that her father does not approve, or sometimes even if she wears inappropriate clothing. This is done by members of her own family, so the family becomes murderers when the girl brings so-called disgrace to the family. An analysis was done in Egypt not so long ago by the United Nations, and it showed that 75 percent of these murders of a girl are perpetrated by the father, the uncle, or the brother, but 25 percent of the murders are conducted by women.

Another problem that we have in the world that relates to women particularly is slavery, or human trafficking, as it's called nowadays. There were about 12.5 million people sold from Africa into slavery in the New World back in the 19th century and the 18th century. There are 30 million people now living in slavery. The U.S. Department of State now has a mandate from Congress to give a report every year, and the State Department reports that 800,000 people are sold across international borders every year into slavery, and that 80 percent of those are women sold into sexual slavery. In the United States right this moment, 60,000 people are living in human bondage, or slavery. In Atlanta, Ga., where The Carter Center is located and where I teach at Emory University, there are between 200 and 300 women sold into slavery every month, making it the number-one place in the nation for sex trafficking. Atlanta has the busiest airport in the world, and they also have a lot of passengers that come from the Southern Hemisphere. If a brothel owner wants to buy a girl that has brown or black skin, they can do it for $1,000. A white-skinned girl brings several times more than that, and the average brothel owner in Atlanta and in the United States now can earn about $35,000 per slave. The sex trade in Atlanta, Ga., exceeds the total drug trade in the city. So this is another very serious problem, and the basic problem is prostitution, because there's not a whorehouse in America that's not known by the local officials, the local policemen, or the chief of police, or the mayor and so forth.

And this leads to one of the worst problems, and that is that women are bought increasingly and put into sexual slavery in all countries in the world.

Sweden has a good approach to it. About 15 to 20 years ago, Sweden decided to change the law, and women are no longer prosecuted if they are in sexual slavery, but the brothel owners and the pimps and the male customers are prosecuted, and -- (Applause) -- prostitution has gone down. In the United States, we take just the opposite position. For every male arrested for illegal sex trade, 25 women are arrested in the United States of America. Canada, Ireland, I've already said Sweden, France, and other countries are moving now towards this so-called Swedish model. That's another thing that can be done.

We have two great institutions in this country that all of us admire: our military and our great university system. In the military, they are now analyzing how many sexual assaults take place. According to the last report I got, there were 26,000 sexual assaults that took place in the military - 26,000. Only 3,000, not much more than 1 percent, are actually prosecuted, and the reason is that the commanding officer of any organization - a ship like my submarine, a battalion in the Army, or a company in the Marines -the commanding officer has the right under law to decide whether to prosecute a rapist or not, and of course, the last thing they want is for anybody to know that under their command, sexual assaults are taking place, so they do not do it. That law needs to be changed.

About one out of four girls who enter American universities will be sexually assaulted before she graduates, and this is now getting a lot of publicity, partially because of my book, but also other things, and so 89 universities in America are now condemned by the Department of Education under Title IX because the officials of the universities are not taking care of the women to protect them from sexual assault. The Department of Justice says that more than half of the rapes on a college campus take place by serial rapists, because outside of the university system, if they rape somebody, they'll be prosecuted, but when they get on a university campus, they can rape with impunity. They're not prosecuted. Those are the kinds of things that go on in our society.

Another thing that's very serious about the abuse of women and girls is the lack of equal pay for equal work, as you know. (Applause) And this is sometimes misinterpreted, but for full-time employment, a woman in the United States now gets 23 percent less than a man. When I became president, the difference was 39 percent. So we've made some progress, partially because I was president and so forth, -- (Applause) (Laughter) -- but in the last 15 years, there's been no progress made, so it's been just about 23 or 24 percent difference for the last 15 years. These are the kinds of things that go on. If you take the Fortune 500 companies, 23 of them have women CEOs, out of 500, and those CEOs, I need not tell you, make less on an average than the other CEOs. Well, that's what goes on in our country.

Another problem with the United States is we are the most warlike nation on Earth. We have been to war with about 25 different countries since the second world war. Sometimes, we've had soldiers on the ground fighting. The other times, we've been flying overhead dropping bombs on people. Other times, of course, now, we have drones that attack people and so forth. We've been at war with 25 different countries or more since the second world war. There were four years, I won't say which ones, where we didn't -- (Applause) -- we didn't drop a bomb, we didn't launch a missile, we didn't fire a bullet. But anyway, those kinds of things, the resort to violence and the misinterpretation of the holy scriptures are what causes, are the basic causes, of abuse of women and girls.

There's one more basic cause that I need not mention, and that is that in general, men don't give a damn. (Applause) That's true. The average man that might say, "I'm against the abuse of women and girls," quietly accepts the privileged position that we occupy, and this is very similar to what I knew when I was a child, when separate but equal had existed. Racial discrimination, legally, had existed for 100 years, from 1865 at the end of the War Between the States, the Civil War, all the way up to the 1960s, when Lyndon Johnson got the bills passed for equal rights. But during that time, there were many white people that didn't think that racial discrimination was okay, but they stayed quiet, because they enjoyed the privileges of better jobs, unique access to jury duty, better schools, and everything else, and that's the same thing that exists today, because the average man really doesn't care. Even though they say, "I'm against discrimination against girls and women," they enjoy a privileged position. And it's very difficult to get the majority of men who control the university system, the majority of men that control the military system, the majority of men that control the governments of the world, and the majority of men that control the great religions - to act for change.

So what is the basic thing that we need to do today? I would say the best thing that we could do today is for the women in the powerful nations like this one, and where you come from, Europe and so forth, who have influence and who have freedom to speak and to act, to take the responsibility on yourselves to be more forceful in demanding an end to racial discrimination against girls and women all over the world. The average woman in Egypt doesn't have much to say about her daughters getting genitally mutilated and so forth. I didn't even go into detail about that. But I hope that out of this conference, all the women here will get your husbands to realize that these abuses on the college campuses and the military and in the future job market and so forth are happening, and they need to protect your daughters and your granddaughters.

I have four children, 12 grandchildren, and 10 great-grandchildren, and I think often about them and about the plight that they will face - whether they live in America or Egypt or another foreign country - in having equal rights. I hope that all of you will join me in being a champion for women and girls around the world and protect their human rights. Thank you very much.

Donate Now

Sign Up For Email

Please sign up below for important news about the work of The Carter Center and special event invitations.

Please leave this field empty
Now, we invite you to Get Involved
Back To Top