By Marianne Schnall
Former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Mary Robinson say women and girls are the victims of dangerous practices too often justified in the name of religion and tradition. They are members of a prestigious international group that is spotlighting the issue.
Violence against women and girls is an international epidemic. According to the United Nations, one out of three women will experience violence at some stage in their lives—a “severe and pervasive” situation according to former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Still, society rarely reflects upon the complicated roots of this devastating problem.
One powerful group is determined to break through the silence. The Elders, a distinguished panel of world leaders including Annan, hope to use their collective influence to bring the worldwide oppression of women to center stage. Its Equality for Women & Girls initiative calls “for an end to the use of religious and traditional practices to justify and entrench discrimination against women and girls.”
The Elders was brought together by Nelson Mandela to “support peace building” and “address major causes of suffering” around the world. Within the group, former President Jimmy Carter has been a vocal champion on the issue of violence and discrimination against women, which he calls “a global scourge.” In addition to sexual assault and domestic violence, he cites other evidence: “Millions of baby girls are ‘missing’ due to sex-selected abortion or infanticide in societies that favor boy children, women in some Islamic societies are punished for showing an ankle, and their word is worth less than that of a man in law. In rape cases women are often treated as the guilty party and punished as such.”
He notes that “discrimination is formally outlawed in most countries” and women have attained “the highest political offices in many societies around the world.” Given such progress, he finds it “ironic that in many religions women are still viewed as inferior and deprived of the equal right to serve God in positions of religious leadership. This contributes to an environment in which violations against women are justified.”
Carter, who delivered a passionate keynote speech at the 2009 Parliament of the World’s Religions declaring a “religious imperative” for equality, believes that until we candidly begin to discuss harmful practices and beliefs propagated by many religions, we will not be able to change things in a meaningful way. “The truth is that male religious leaders have had—and still have—an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. Too often they have chosen the latter,” thus providing the foundation for “pervasive persecution and abuse of women throughout the world.” A belief that women are inferior in the eyes of God, he says, excuses “the brutal husband who beats his wife, the soldier who rapes a woman, the employer who has a lower pay scale for women employees, or parents who decide to abort a female embryo. It also costs many millions of girls and women control over their own bodies” and denies them “influence within their own communities.”
Mary Robinson, another member of the Elders, stresses that their initiative is not anti-religion. Robinson, who was the first woman president of Ireland, says, “As Elders we have great respect for all religions and traditions as important forces that bind people together.” But, she adds, when “used to justify cruel and harmful practices such as female genital mutilation, infanticide and child marriage, then we believe that is unacceptable.”
Robinson faults too many leaders—mainly men—“who use tradition and religion to deny girls and women equal rights and opportunities in life.” She adds, “I dare say they are worried about giving up power to women. I hope that the Elders can persuade them that we will all benefit if all girls and boys, men and women, are given an equal chance to develop their full potential.”
A vital component of the Elders’ initiative highlights equality for girls, says Robinson, who was formerly UN high commissioner for human rights. “That is important as girls, especially adolescent girls, have been almost invisible in debates on equal rights,” she says. “Yet it is in adolescence that events can have a huge effect on a girl’s life.”
Access to education, says Robinson, is one of the most obvious issues to address. “Most girls around the world now go to primary school and that is encouraging.” But too often girls drop out. “Families may choose to educate boys above girls, or expect girls to stay home to take care of the family. Once they reach puberty, inadequate toilet facilities at school, or sexual harassment may also lead to girls discontinuing their schooling.”
Robinson says that the trend of very young girls being forced to marry also puts girls at risk. “Those who become pregnant while they are in their teens are at far higher risk of dying during pregnancy or childbirth. While child marriage is outlawed in most countries, it is still practiced in the name of ‘tradition.’ I hope that we can raise awareness about the grave danger this poses—and encourage leaders to put far greater effort into policing and ending it.”
The Elders, says Robinson, intend to spotlight the misuse of religion and tradition to “justify” harmful practices “rather than to further equality and mutual respect.” Says Carter, “For me, the equal treatment of women and girls, and challenging those who use the word of God to justify discrimination, is a very important matter …I will continue to fight for the rights of women and girls to be treated equally in all aspects of life.”
For more information on the Elders and the Equality for Women & Girls initiative, visit the group’s website.