Jimmy Carter’s new book A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power (2014) is like the cliff’s notes version of Half the Sky by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. This isn’t meant as a criticism, but instead admiration. I’m in awe that a man in his 90s with much power and influence in the world, given that he is a former U. S. president, would spend time writing about global women’s issues. I gained new respect for Carter by reading this book, for I realized just how passionate and determined he is in making this world a better place for everybody. I’ve developed a feminist crush on him.
His book is an overview of all of the many problems that face women worldwide, with short chapters dedicated to each topic, such as legal killing, sexual assault and rape, war, religion and gender, genocide, slavery, spouse abuse, “honor” killings, genital cutting, and more. He says, “All the elements in this book concerning prejudice, discrimination, war, violence, distorted interpretations of religious texts, physical and mental abuse, poverty, and disease fall disproportionately on women and girls” (p. 1). These subjects are heavy and deserve more than a short chapter, but Carter’s treatment of them, although short, is thorough and draws attention to the many issues that need attention. Much of what he knows of these issues is through his work at The Carter Center. He also shares research on the subjects, stories of those who have experienced them, the experiences of volunteers who work to solve these problems, and quotes from world leaders and prominent religious figures who have spoken out about the issues. I found these quotes to be especially poignant because many of them were women, and using women’s voices to talk about and engage in women’s problems is a great way to start addressing those problems and to legitimize the female experience, which should not be terrifying.
Because much of what Carter addresses coincides with religion, he makes a point of sharing his own spiritual experiences and beliefs as a way of building credibility. He isn’t out to attack religion, but he is out to make sure that we scrutinize our traditions and work to build better ones in which women are safe and treated as people. He wrote, of his childhood, “I began to realize for the first time that I lived in a community where our Bible lessons were interpreted to accommodate the customs and ethical standards that were most convenient. . . . I was caught up in an even more generic misinterpretation of the Holy Scriptures concerning racial inequality, which has affected my entire life. I came to realize that rationalization is a human trait, of which we are all guilty at times. I certainly do not like to admit that any of my deeply held beliefs are in error, and when any are challenged I seek every source of evident to prove that I am right” (p. 9-10). We all do this, and Carter teaches us to be better through his own mistakes and through his willingness to be humble. Sometimes we can be wrong, and those wrongs should be made right.
I was most touched by the work The Carter Center has done and is doing in many African countries in terms of health. “We have been able to train 6,500 health extension workers in the Amhara region, and all are women” (p. 78). He explains how flies seeking moisture will sit on the eyes and eventually cause blindness. He also talks about how worms can get into the body through dirty water. These worms grow quite large and then push their way out of the body in a painful, month-long process. By building wells and training the women of the communities about these health concerns, they have improved the situation and resolved many of the problems associated with such diseases. I love how he highlighted the important role that women play in such endeavors because they teach others, pass on the information and experience to their children, and work with the community to continue to make improvements. He explained, “In fact, though formerly excluded from positions of leadership or responsibility, dedicated and competent women have been the key to our success in every health project” (p. 79). As Ela Bhatt said, “I have faith in women . . . . Focus on women and you will find an ally who wants a stable community. She wants roots for her family. You get a worker, a provider, a caretaker, an educator, a networker, a forger of bonds. I consider thousands of poor working women’s participation and representation an integral part of the peace and development process” (p. 193).
In terms of domestic and sexual violence, we learn that men’s attitudes and actions are the major key in creating change. Carter cites a New York Times article by Vinita Bharadwaj that says, “what India desperately needs is a women’s revolution, let by men—fathers, sons, grandfathers, brothers, uncles, nephews, boyfriends, husbands, and lovers who are comfortable with the rise of their women. It’s a change that must begin in our homes” (p. 119). She and Carter are getting at the idea that we must teach our sons as much as our daughters how to treat others, and that one gender is not better than or in control of the other.
One of the religious issues raised through a Christian lens in the book is the idea that women should be submissive to men and that their husbands own them. In doing research on the history of my church, I’ve come across this idea in speeches and meetings of the 1850s. It isn’t uncommon, although nowadays we tend to know better. However, Carter cites Reverend Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, who notes how often the scripture about turning the other check can be “invoked to convince battered women it is ‘Christian’ to just take abuse, and it is a very difficult text for them” (p. 142). As a victim of emotional abuse myself, I know just how hard it can be to want to live Christian principles and to reconcile those with allowing others to continue to mistreat and abuse. I came across a beautiful quote about this very subject from Aileen Clyde: “It is not charity or kindness to endure any type of abuse or unrighteousness that may be inflicted on us by others” (quoted in Women of Covenant, p. 406; original speech found here). She goes on to say, “God’s commandment that as we love him, we must respect ourselves, suggests we must not accept disrespect from others. It is not charity to let another repeatedly deny our divine nature and agency. It is not charity to bow down in despair and helplessness.” In Carter’s book, he cites Jim Wallis: “what has been missing from this narrative is the condemnation of these behaviors from other men. . . we need to establish a firm principle: the abuse of women by men will no longer be tolerated by other men” (p. 194).
Shockingly, but revealed in extensive detail in Half the Sky, is the thriving slave-trade the world has. “The UN International Labor Organization reports that there are now approximately 20.9 million people engaged in forced labor. Foreign Affairs magazine observes, ‘Slavery and the global slave trade continues to thrive to this day; in fact, it is likely that more people are being trafficked across borders against their will now than at any point in the past’” (p. 126). Unfortunately, much of these slaves are forced into prostitution. For more information about this, please read Half the Sky. The authors spent time in countries around the world investigating the sex slave problem and have even tried to rescue girls, who ended up in the slave trade because they were kidnapped by being promised stable jobs in developed countries. Carter mentions Half the Sky frequently in his discussion of this global problem. He notes that education is one of the major keys to improving women’s lives. “The primary tool that . . . [is] effective in sustaining the freedom of the rescued women is to provide them with an education. This restores their self-respect and assures that literacy and marketable skills can sustain them and their families in the future” (p. 131).
This book is full of horrifying statistics and facts, clear solutions and actions to be taken to help solve these problems, and heartwarming anecdotes about the power of change. I’m moved by Carter’s willingness to write this book, and the obvious care he has for his global brothers and sisters. I admire him and his wife Rosalynn and their work through The Carter Center. However, I’m equally as impressed, perhaps more so, by the voices of the workers and leaders in this book who are working within their own communities to make them safer for women. If you care at all about global women’s issues, you must read this book. And if you don’t care, you should, and you should read this book to find out why.