In a village in Ghana, President Jimmy Carter stopped to greet a young woman nursing a baby.
Carter describes the encounter in his new book, “A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power.” (You can add poverty and disease to that list.)
“But there was no baby; instead she was holding her right breast, which was almost a foot long and had a worm emerging from the nipple. Later I learned that a total of twelve worms emerged from different places of her body,” he writes.
Some 20 years later, wells have eradicated the Guinea worm, which disproportionately affected women dutifully hauling heavy water jugs from fetid ponds.
In “A Call to Action,” the former president, who traveled to 145 countries with his wife, Rosalynn, and activists from their Carter Center in Atlanta, Ga., pulls no punches as he assails the forces that turn women into second-class citizens.
He shows how religious leaders have purposefully doctored sacred texts to glorify men -- and keep those women fetching water. He assails genital cutting, child brides, honor killing and trafficking, and outlines a “road to progress.”
I spoke on the phone with President Carter, 89, as he left San Francisco for the airport to continue his book tour.
Hoelterhoff: Your schedule would crush a 25-year-old. What’s your secret? You look great on TV.
Carter: Exercise! And I always listen to Rosalynn.
Hoelterhoff: You’ve empowered many African women just by providing a water pump.
Carter: I painted a picture of them with their very bright colored dresses walking with five-gallon buckets on top of their heads.
The women were eager to have a chance for the first time in their lives to play a relatively prominent role in the community affairs. It was kind of like a women’s liberation movement started when the Carter Center recognized them as equal to men.
About half the farms in Africa are led by women. The men take care of the animals. They’re in charge of storing the surplus grain that their wives produce and they handle the money.
Hoelterhoff: You describe a village ceremony where a farmer received a medal for work done by his wife.
You made him show you the fields, which revealed his ignorance. I got the sense you enjoyed that moment.
Carter: Well, my wife was with me and she brings it up more often than I do.
I’m sure that the villagers knew ahead of time that the women do most of the work and get very little credit for it.
So they had to share that secret, that village policy with the outside world. I think they may have had a better appreciation for women after I left.
Hoelterhoff: Pope Francis recently wrote to you that women should have a greater role in the church. And it does seem like a good time, given the shortage of male priests and the cases of abuse.
How many years do you think might pass before we see a woman priest?
Carter: I can’t really say. That would be a major change within the infrastructure of the Catholic Church and I don’t think one pope, at least in an early stage of his holding office, could make that change.
But I noticed that last week, the pope appointed a committee of eight people to deal with priest abuses of our children. And four of those committee members were women.
One of the women appointed had been abused as a child by a priest.
I’m not a Catholic, but to me that was maybe a transforming decision by the pope to give women an equal role in doing away with the abuse of children.
Hoelterhoff: I can’t think of another change that would so quickly improve the lives of women. If women can be servants of God, they would be harder to enslave by the men on Earth.
Carter: Yes. You know, there’s a group of nuns who recognize that the priesthood might be too big a change right away. They’re looking to get women to be deacons in the Catholic Church.
Hoelterhoff: There’s another issue that you pay a lot of attention to -- sex trafficking, a booming business. When I read that 200 to 300 kids are sold every month in Atlanta, that was a stunner.
And that the fine of getting caught was just 50 bucks?
Do you think it would make a difference if it were $50,000?
Carter: I doubt it. Atlanta has that unsavory reputation, which is accurate, because it’s the largest airport on Earth.
I believe a woman from the southern hemisphere sells to a pimp or a brothel only for about $1,000. Whereas one with white skin -- they cost from $2,000 to $8,000 each.
Hoelterhoff: So it’s so lucrative.
Carter: Some 800,000 girls are sold across international borders every year, 80 percent of whom are little girls. In the U.S., about 100,000 girls are sold into sexual slavery every year.
Hoelterhoff: And yet so under the radar, it seems.
Carter: We don’t pay any attention to it. There are whorehouses or houses of prostitution or brothels, whatever you want to call them, in every city in America and all of them are known by the city’s officials -- the mayor, the city councilmen, and the policemen. The policemen on the beat are bribed with free sex or they have an order from the chief of police: Let’s just don’t rock the boat.
And in our country, it’s particularly abusive to the girls who have been quite often sold into slavery. There are 50 times as many prostitutes in America arrested as are brothel owners or pimps or male customers.
Hoelterhoff: Your book is called “A Call to Action.” How do we deal with these incredible numbers and the violence?
Carter: We need to emulate what Sweden has done. They punished the johns, the pimps and the brothel owners. They don’t punish the girls.
A number of countries in Europe are now emulating what the Swedish have done with a proven record of success.
Hoelterhoff: Is there any city in the U.S. that has followed the model of Sweden?
Hoelterhoff: Have any religious leaders criticized your book, say on birth control?
Carter: Not birth control. I’ve heard that some of the Southern Baptist Convention leaders have accused me of condemning them. But I don’t condemn them because they are just as sincere in their beliefs as I am.
I’ve always been against abortion unless the abortion is caused by threat to a woman’s life or rape or incest. That’s what I believe as I interpret Jesus Christ’s teaching.
What I do deplore, obviously, is selective abortions of fetuses by parents who discover that their baby will be a female.
Hoelterhoff: A woman in India confessed to having strangled eight of her daughters.
Carter: And she wasn’t all that apologetic, because she said that she and her husband couldn’t afford to have a whole bunch of children and they wanted a boy, so she just assumed that there was a logical thing for her to do.
For more information about the Carter Center: http://www.cartercenter.org/
(Manuela Hoelterhoff is an executive editor at Bloomberg News. Any opinions are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)