With his 90th birthday looming, former US president Jimmy Carter looks back on his troubled term in office and talks to GC about his new book and his ongoing fight to end the abuse of women and lethal waterborne diseases
The week before former president Jimmy Carter calls me from his home in Plains, Georgia, three appalling instances of abuse to women and girls take place that shock the world.
In Sudan, a woman gave birth to her second child in shackles in a cell after being sentenced to death for being a Christian by a strict Islamic judge.
In Pakistan, a pregnant woman was stoned to death outside a court by her own family for marrying the man of her choice as police reportedly looked on and did nothing.
And in Nigeria, there was still no sign that more than 200 schoolgirls kidnapped by radical Islamists Boko Haram would be set free.
If you were not convinced by Carter’s argument that the “pervasive denial of equal rights to women” is the greatest unaddressed challenge facing the world, right now it is hard to argue otherwise.
He claims the issue poses more of a danger to our economic, moral and societal future than famine, war or the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Carter, who turns 90 in October, says it was the sheer scope of the problem that inspired him to write about it in his latest book A Call To Action: Women, Religion, Violence and Power.
“Wars and famine are possibilities for the future but for instance, there are at least three honour killings in Pakistan every day,” he says.
“When one gets reported as it was last week, that makes a big headline, but you don’t see all the other honour killings that take place.
“Sexual assault takes place regularly and I believe slavery among women and girls is worse now perhaps than even the slavery that involved black people coming out of Africa in the 18th and 19th century.
“These things go on constantly but the world has the inclination to look the other way because leaders don’t want to admit these crimes take place on their own command.”
Reeling off one report after another, Carter argues holding back half the world’s population from fulfilling their potential is bad for us all.
It is also not a problem that is confined to developing countries. The US Department of State reported that in 2012 alone, there were 60,000 girls sold into sexual slavery.
Carter, who has been a Baptist all his life, blames misinterpretation of religious texts as the main reason why this has happened.
He says: “These derogations of women, ostensibly in the eyes of God, cause potentially abusive men to look upon women as being inferior to them.
“This applies to a husband that wants to abuse his wife or an employer who think it’s okay to pay a woman less than a man for the same kind of work.
“There’s a misinterpretation in the Quran concerning the mutilation of women’s genital organs. There is nothing in the Quran that mandates that.”
That Carter should address this issue is in keeping with his work since leaving the White House in 1981 after his single term in office as America’s 39th president.
He has published 11 books, won the Nobel Peace Prize and in 1982 founded the non-profit The Carter Centre to pursue humanitarian causes after waking up in the middle of the night with the idea.
Blessed with a mixture of determination and longevity, Carter effectively set the standard for the post-presidential second career. Without him, Bill Clinton might have been spending his days playing golf instead of running his Global Initiative.
The Carter Centre has been described as a “mini State Department” based out of its headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia.
It employs 175 people with dozens more in field offices commanding a budget of $90 million to supervise elections and, in Carter’s words, to “wage peace”.
Last year the Carter Centre treated about 36 million people for curable diseases that are still a problem in the developing world.
The organisation’s biggest achievement has been its campaign to rid the world of guinea worm, a horrific parasite that enters the body through dirty drinking water and grows up to 3ft long before forcing its way out of the skin.
Carter says: “When we started out working on this disease we found it in 25,000 villages in 20 different countries.
“We located 3.5 million cases of guinea worm. Last year we had 148 cases in the whole world and this year we only have 19 cases. We are approaching the elimination of this disease.”
The Carter Centre is funded by donations and Carter, who was originally an engineer by trade, keeps donors updated with a statistics-driven approach that lets them know just how effectively their money is being spent.
Upon request the centre can provide details on the minutiae of its work, whether it is the number of people treated for blindness or surgeries it performed.
Another lesson Carter has learned over the years is to be efficient and spend what he calls a “tiny proportion” of the centre’s income raising money.
Carter does not name the amount but says it has not changed since the centre’s budget was five times smaller than it is now.
As for violence against women, the solution is outlined in his book. The final chapter is a long list of demands including encouraging young women to speak out more, remove commanding officers under investigation for sexual abuse from the armed forces and prosecute pimps and prostitutes’ clients.
He even urges First Ladies like Michelle Obama to do more, though the book was written before she started the hashtag ‘bringbackourgirls’ over the Boko Haram incident.
Such a bold move is something Carter would have no doubt approved of.
He has never been shy of courting controversy and attracted criticism from Republicans in the US for his close relationship to Yasser Arafat, the former head of the Palestine Liberation Organisation.
Yet one of the most significant achievements of his term in office was bringing then-Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and former Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin to the table for the Camp David peace accords in 1978 in a bid to halt the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Carter says talking to all parties involved in a dispute is the only way to achieve long lasting peace.
In the Middle East, the Carter Centre has full-time offices in Jerusalem, Gaza, Ramallah and regularly talks to both Fatah and Hamas, including during the 2006 elections where they swept to power.
Carter says: “One of the key goals in my life has been to bring peace to Israel and in doing so to bring peace to Israel’s immediate neighbours.
“So even when other governments including the United States and Europe don’t want to address the difficult issues in the Middle East, the Carter Centre does this.
“We constantly emphasise the plight of the Palestinians and try to call for an opportunity to make progress in the peace process.
“We are the only organisation which does this. The rest of them avoid controversy.
“Most people won’t deal with Hamas but we were in Palestine monitoring the (2006) election when Hamas candidates were encouraged by Israel and the US to participate and then after they won, and only after they won the election, did the US and Israel decide to call the Hamas candidates terrorists. Now they have a legal obstacle to dealing with Hamas.”
Carter also feels it is not enough for any country, including those in the Middle East, to just donate money to bring about peace, they have to act too.
He said: “All countries have an obligation to communicate with people who cause problems.
“Sometimes there are people who refuse communication with, say, the US, because they are doing something we don’t like.
“They are the ones we have to talk to in order to get in to change their policies to promote peace or to stop perpetrating terrible human rights crimes.
“At the Carter Centre, I have made a policy ever since I left the White House to go where I choose and to meet whom I please. I am free to say what I really believe and to promote peace.”
There is undoubtedly continuity in Carter the man, the humble peanut farmer from rural Georgia who joined the navy, became governor of his state and rose to become president in 1977.
His term in office, however, is considered problematic at best. During his tenure high unemployment, soaring inflation and the Iranian hostage crisis dominated the Carter White House, especially in his last year in office.
It was five minutes after he handed over to his successor Ronald Reagan that word came through all 66 American diplomats and citizens, who were being held hostage in the US embassy in Tehran, had been freed after 444 days in captivity.
Announcing their release to the world was Reagan’s first official job. Historians are still divided on whether it was Carter’s negotiations which secured their freedom, the fear of tougher terms from the incoming president or revenge from the Iranians for Carter’s support of the Shah.
I have made a policy ever since I left the White House to go where I choose and to meet whom I please. I am free to say what I really believe and to promote peace.
The drama overshadowed the historic Camp David peace accord between Israel and Egypt, which ended 31 years of war between them.
Dr Barbara Perry, a presidential scholar at the University of Virginia’s Miller Centre, says the very qualities that got Carter elected were his undoing while in office.
She says: “He was so modest and so populist, it didn’t prepare him for the way that Washington worked.
“He became completely ineffective on the international stage.
“Some people say you can make your own good luck and in Jimmy Carter’s case, his opponents would say he also manufactured his own bad luck.”
Any suggestion the good work in Carter’s post-presidency has undone this damage is “not based in reality”, she adds.
Carter disagrees and says when he looks at his own record “I have never thought it needed any redemption”.
Citing how he normalised relations with China after a 35-year impasse, Carter says he has been doing the “same thing since I left office as I did when I was in office as president”.
“All of the commentaries, particularly the ones that are critical of me, say I was too weak to get our hostages back in a timely fashion.
“My plan was carried out successfully in that every hostage came back home, safe and free and we did not cause any unnecessary loss of life.
Every hostage came back in good health. So no, I don’t have any regrets.
It is fair to say Carter is likely to be remembered more for his exemplary post-presidential work.
He has been retired for longer than some people have careers, holds the longest post-presidency and the second longest presidential marriage.
Asked about the prospect of entering his tenth decade, Carter says with dry wit: “I’m older than when I was 80 or 70.”
Given his seemingly endless drive, he will probably be doing the same when he gets to 100.