Life in Action

Q&A with the Carter Center's Karin Ryan

by Stacy Smith

Karin Ryan with President Jimmy Carter.

For 26 years, Karin Ryan has served with President Jimmy Carter and Mrs. Rosalynn Carter at the Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia. As the senior project advisor for the human rights program, she works to strengthen international systems and support human rights activists. President Carter dedicated his new book, A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power, to Karin and “the countless women and girls whose abuse and deprivation she strives to alleviate.” Church Health Reader spoke with her about the book, her passion for the Carter Center, and where she finds inspiration for her work in human rights.

Stacy Smith: How does religion impact the work of the Carter Center?

Karin Ryan: The Carter Center is informed by President Carter’s own experience, heavily influenced from growing up in the South. It’s also influenced by religion in his life, his family, and his community. When he was president, he tried to approach his decisions in a way that took people as they are, approaching problems as they are. He has this worldview where he sees things from others’ point of view; you might call that the golden rule. That’s how he sees the world. Whether it’s North Korea, Palestinians or Israelis, he is looking and talking to people as equals. He does that from what he sees as the essence of the teachings of Christ, to “love thy neighbor as thyself.”

This has created an overall approach that the Carter Center works from. If we are going to look at an issue, we’re going to come in with this attitude of reciprocity and mutual respect. We help them get what they need. It’s a fundamentally different approach. So in looking at human rights, we gravitated toward working with human rights defenders who are working within their own societies to advance human rights.

The most recent work we’ve done is to look at the role religion plays in respect for human rights, and specifically with regard to the rights of women. Religion is so influential for most people, yet somehow the essence of our religion is lost when leaders can look to religious scripture and use them for oppression. We dove deeply in this over the last couple of years and had fascinating discussions and revealing outcomes. It inspired President Carter to write his book.

Is this why President Carter states, “The most serious and unaddressed challenge worldwide is the deprivation and abuse of women and girls”?

Yes, and I love the way he describes it—unaddressed. From the health perspective, consider this statistic: One in three women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. What does that mean? How is that possible? I just read an article today about a survey that concluded young women from ages 13–17 see sexual assault as normal. The comments they make are, “This is what happens, this is what it is. The boys, they touch you, they laugh, and I don’t want to say anything because it’s embarrassing.” That’s in our country, so we’re not talking about just in other places where it is also serious. What does that say, that half of the population is treated differently because of their gender and are looked upon as a target of violence and aggression?

As President Carter articulates in the book, it’s a manifestation of two things. First, we have religion wrong. We’re not interpreting it correctly, and were not doing the job the holy books all point us to, which includes equal human dignity. The second is the idea of violence in society, that we have accepted that violence itself is a way we solve problems. Going to war, the death penalty, mass incarceration, shooting people—there’s story after story every day about the police discharging their firearms on very light grounds. You combine those two things—the influence of religions and the patriarchal interpretation and acceptance of violence—and it expresses itself most vigorously onto girls and women.

Part of the reason for this book and initiative is to encourage people to think about this deeply, to have conversations in congregations and in families, and then to actually go back into our faith communities and challenge ourselves to set some goals. It’s important for people to have a conversation, look at the problem, and do something.

President Carter says that he realized he lived in a community in which Bible lessons were interpreted to accommodate the customs and standards that were the most convenient. Can you say more about this intersection of convenience and critical thinking?

My son asked President Carter the other day why he wrote this book. And he said, “You know, I didn’t want to write this book. This was not enjoyable for me to write, but I felt like it has to be said.” When you talk about human rights, it’s always the hard stuff. If human rights were being respected, we’d all just go along our day and we would do humanitarian work. Not that that’s easy, but it’s simpler because you know what the solution to that person’s problem is. But here, we are talking about something that’s very deep. It has to do with power structures in the world and challenging our fundamental attitudes about how things are happening in this society.

You have to do two things. You have to treat the symptom because you’ve got so many women and girls who are suffering. But shouldn’t we also take a step back and ask ourselves these underlying, fundamental questions so that we can stop creating suffering? It’s like a disease where you have to treat the symptoms and cure the disease itself.

Can you give an example of an issue in which the Christian community has made a substantive impact on these fundamental questions?

The first example is human trafficking. There is an exciting movement starting in the US to combat human trafficking, and it’s coming from within the Christian community, in which churches are starting to learn the facts. Atlanta is the number one city for human trafficking in the United States. It’s actually happening a lot more, even more than cross-border trafficking. It’s happening to middle school to high school girls who are being recruited into prostitutions all over the US, and being convinced it’s a cool thing. It’s an epidemic. So if this movement takes off, it will be because people of faith really see how damaging this is to society.

The second example is from a community in Senegal where they have 2,000-year-old traditions of genital cutting and child marriage. It’s not a Muslim practice; it’s more linked to traditional, cultural, and sometimes Christian communities too. When one woman in this community learned about human rights, she decided she was not going to have her daughter cut. She went to the Imam in the village and persuaded him. This small group of people, starting in this one village, started to persuade each community. They realized that if they were going to stop cutting their girls, all the surrounding villages had to stop it, too, because they intermarry, and they only intermarry girls who are cut with boys in other villages. It has now spread to over 6,000 villages in West Africa, and they have abandoned genital cutting. It started with a woman and an Imam. So it’s the religious leaders who are taking part in ending this practice.

The point is religion can be a part of the solution. However, what we confront is that most people who work on women’s rights don’t want to deal with religion. That’s what President Carter’s book is all about.

Finally, you studied music when you took a break from the Carter Center. How does music fit into your work for human rights?

If you want to change something, you have to change people’s hearts. Nothing does that like the arts and storytelling. Is there any better format for storytelling than a song? One of the reasons I went to study music production was that I want to really bring together music that tells the human rights story from all over the world in different ways. I want to help tell the stories about the struggle for freedom through songs and music.


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