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Carter: Violence against women is 'worst human rights violation on Earth'

At the Civil Rights Summit in Austin, former President Jimmy Carter railed against sex discrimination all over the world.
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter in 2012. (Photo by Amr Dalsh/Reuters)
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter in 2012.

AUSTIN, Texas -- Asked whether America has come as far as it should in fighting racism since President Lyndon Johnson's day, former President Jimmy Carter had a one word answer. 


"There's not any real equality between the two that exists in this country," Carter said of white and black Americans. "We're pretty much dormant now, we kind of accept the self-congratulations about the wonderful 50th anniversary, which is wonderful, but we feel like Lyndon Johnson did it we don't have to do it anymore. I think too many people are at ease with the still existing disparity."

Carter was one of the four living presidents who will address the Civil Rights Summit at the Lyndon Johnson Presidential Library in Austin this week, which marks the upcoming 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act. In an interview with Mark Updegrove, director of the Johnson Library, Carter recalled everything from his childhood in segregated Georgia to helping make peace between Israel and Egypt as president in 1978. But where Carter grew most animated was in talking about sexism, the subject of Carter's most recent book, A Call To Action.

For 15 minutes, a quarter of the interview, 89-year-old Carter rattled off statistics about employment discrimination, sexual assault, human trafficking, sex-selective abortion, and female genital mutilation everywhere from Atlanta, Georgia to Egypt to China, calling violence against women "the worst human rights violation on Earth." 

Since founding the Carter Center in 1982, a global human rights organization, Carter said he'd traveled around the world and seen "an almost unbelievable prejudice and persecution of women and girls." 

Carter's criticism wasn't just reserved for foreign countries. Carter railed against American colleges and the U.S. military for sweeping sexual assault under the rug in an attempt to shield their institutions from criticism. A recent White House report found that one in five women are sexually assaulted in college, but only 12% report it.

"The two most revered institutions in our country, except for the churches, are our university system and our military. The number one place for sexual abuse is the United States universities," Carter said. "The presidents of universities, and deans and so forth, don't want to besmirch the reputation of their institution, so they counsel to the girl, we know it's been terrible on you, we'll give you psychological counselling, we'll counsel the boy and make sure he doesn't do it anymore. But let's not bring legal attention to this affair because, you'll be on the witness stand, and you'll be asked what kind of clothing you were wearing, if you had a few drinks and so forth, and so let's just look the other way, and that's what happens."

Carter, a former Navy lieutenant, said a similar attitude prevails in the military. "I know that commanding officers have the same attitude as college [administrators,] they don't want it to be revealed that under their command, the ship or the company or battalion, that sexual assaults have taken place." Carter said, citing Department of Defense statistics showing around 26,000 incidents of sexual assault in 2012, 90% of which hadn't been reported.

When asked by Updegrove what America should do about sexual assault, Carter suggested cutting federal funding for schools that don't adequately deal with sexual violence, and taking the ability to prosecute sexual assault out of the military chain of command. In March, the U.S. Senate blocked an effort by New York Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand that would have done just that.

Discussing equal pay for men and women, Carter went after the Obama administration. On Tuesday, the administration issued two executive orders intended to boost equal pay for women. It soon came under fire for an existing pay gap between men and women within the administration itself, which Carter made a point of noting. 

"This happens under President Obama in the White House, because he started talking about this lately, not when he first came in the office but lately," Carter said, "and it was revealed that women in the White House get paid less for doing the same jobs." Carter's criticism wasn't totally fair -- the first law bearing Obama's signature addresses equal pay for women.

As with Johson's lowering of racialized immigration restrictions, his administration's impact on sex discrimination is less appreciated than his record on rights for black Americans. But the Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned sex discrimination, as well as race discrimination. In what may have been the most failed act of political trolling in American history, segregationist southern Democrat Howard Smith added sex discrimination to the Civil Rights Act in what may have been an attempt to kill the bill. It passed anyway, adding further protections for women in the workplace.  

Carter said that the reason discrimination against women goes unaddressed is that men still control too many of the levers of power. 

"We don't do anything about it, because men make most of the decisions, and just like it was during the civil rights age, we benefited because we got the best jobs, we got the best education, we could vote, our black neighbors couldn't we could serve on juries and our black neighbors couldn't," Carter said. "Now, we don't much like to rock the boat even though we disagree with what I just described. This is human rights abuse of the grossest character that needs to be addressed by every American, and we need to set an example for the rest of the world."