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A Call to Action – Women, Religion, Violence, and Power by Jimmy Carter, book review: A radical attack on sexist society

Former US President Jimmy Carter condemns the culture of indifference among the Christian Right

The most remarkable fact in this book of shocking statistics about the disadvantages and abuses faced by women is that it was written by a white, American Southern Baptist man in his 90th year. Jimmy Carter was the president of the United States from 1977 to 1981 and his single term in office was overshadowed by the Iran hostage crisis, the energy crisis and the American boycott of the Moscow Olympics after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Even many Democrats in his home country regard him as a dangerously naive liberal and this 198-page volume, concluding with a 23-point Call to Action as promised in its title, will do nothing to alter that perception. That is to his credit.

Many of his concerns seem obvious yet his premise is radical. "Although economic disparity is a great and growing problem, I have become convinced that the most serious and unaddressed worldwide challenge is the deprivation and abuse of women and girls," he writes. And he doesn't think that makes prostitution, female genital mutilation or the pay gap "women's issues". He is clear that they are problems for all.

To make his case, he draws on 30 years of work carried out by the Carter Center he set after leaving office to fight global disease, poverty and conflict. And he uses his experience of visiting 145 countries worldwide with his beloved wife Rosalynn and running projects in more than half of these to explain what is wrong – and what can be done. There are glimpses, too, of how a former president can use his influence for good if he so desires.

You can see why his reputation in the States is of being sanctimonious. But his wince-inducing description of how guinea worms grow and disable their human victims demonstrates that his moral indignation is perfectly proper.

And he is willing to expose America to damning comparisons, which perhaps explains why he has never enjoyed the domestic popularity of his Republican successor Ronald Reagan.

Nearly two-thirds of parliamentarians in Rwanda are women. Most Western countries have an average of 25 per cent, but it was 18 per cent in the 2012 US Congress. The United States is also at the bottom of the list of industrialised nations for maternal mortality rates.

And nowhere is he more condemnatory than in his exposure of the Christian Right in America for blocking progress.

Uganda, he points out, was making inroads in fighting HIV and Aids until conservative American Christian leaders persuaded its president's wife against the use of condoms. America is also a rare country, alongside Iran, Somalia and Sudan, in having refused to ratify the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women – over abortion.

Faith is a major Carter concern and there are interesting sections examining why so many religions deny equality to women. He challenges the use of scripture to support gender disparity.

And while his belief in God appears unchallengeable, he and his wife resigned from the Southern Baptists, the world's largest Baptist denomination, after 70 years when new leaders promoted interpretations of the Bible including the requirement for wives to be "submissive" to their husbands.

This is not always an excitingly written book and a few statistics felt in need of closer probing.

But it is engagingly laced with riveting details of his own life, including a childhood in the Great Depression, raised in one of only two white families in a rural backwater where his friends were black, and of his wartime service in the Navy.

And the examples of the practical successes of the Carter Center are legion and contrast badly with the post-power activity of many world leaders.

Take the example of latrines. To help tackle the blinding trachoma spread by flies and affecting millions of the world's poor, the centre launched a programme that by the end of 2012 had seen 2.9 million loos built in Ethiopia.

"I am proud of my growing reputation as the world's most preeminent sponsor of latrines," he writes, with – surely – just a hint of a smile. And so he should be. The do-gooding peanut farmer from Georgia is a decent man.

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