Why UN Experts are Appalled by the Status of Women in the U.S.

A Chilling Report Puts U.S. Problems in International Context

Women face extreme challenges to accessing reproductive health care in the U.S., one of many issues identified as distressing by the UN Commission for Human Rights.
A Pro-life activist (R) stands silently before a group of pro-choice activists in front of the U.S. Supreme Court January 23, 2006 in Washington, DC. Alex Wong/Getty Images

In December, 2015, representatives from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights visited the U.S. to evaluate the status of women relative to men in the country. Their missions was to determine the extent to which U.S. women "enjoy international human rights." The group's report details what most women in the U.S. already know: when it comes to politics, the economy, health care, and safety, we face far worse conditions than men. In many cases, the UN found women in the U.S. to be significantly lacking in human rights per international standards. The report states, "In the US, women fall behind international standards as regards their public and political representation, their economic and social rights and their health and safety protections."

Underrepresentation in Politics

The UN points out that women hold less than 20 percent of Congressional seats, and on average comprise just a quarter of state legislative bodies. Historically, these figures represent progress for the U.S., but globally, our nation ranks only 72nd among all countries in the world for political parity. Based on interviews conducted around the U.S., the UN representatives concluded that this problem is fueled by sexist discrimination against women, which makes it more difficult for women to fundraise for political campaigns, relative to men. They observe, "In particular, it is a result of exclusion from the predominantly male political networks that promote funding." Further, they suspect that negative sexist stereotypes and "biased representations" of women across media platforms has a negative impact on a woman's ability to fundraise and win political office.

The UN report also raises concerns about new and more restrictive voter ID laws in places like Alabama, which they suspect are likely to disenfranchise women voters, who are more likely to undergo name changes due to marriage, and who are more likely to be poor.

Ripped Off Economically

The UN report condemns the well-known gender pay gap that plagues women in the U.S., and points out that it is actually widest for those with the most education (though Black, Latina, and Native women have the lowest earnings). The experts observe that it is a serious problem that federal law does not actually require equal pay for equal value. 

The UN report also critiques the serious loss of wages and wealth that women suffer when they have children, stating, "we are shocked by the lack of mandatory standards for workplace accommodation for pregnant women, post-natal mothers and persons with care responsibilities, which are required in international human rights law." The U.S. is, shamefully, the only developed country that does not guarantee paid maternity leave, and is one of only two countries in the world that does not offer this human right. The experts point out that international standards require that maternity leave be paid leave, and that best practice dictates that paid leave should be provided for the second parent too.

The experts also found that the Great Recession had a disproportionate negative impact on women because they are over-represented among the poor who lost homes in the mortgage crisis. The UN also points out that women were more harmed than men by cuts to social protection programs designed to stimulate the economy, especially racial minorities and single mothers.

Poor Health Care Options & Lack of Rights

The UN mission to the U.S. found that women experience a distressing lack of affordable and available health care options, and also that many are lacking reproductive rights that are common around the world (and the situation in many places in the U.S. is worsening by the day). The experts found that, despite the passage of the Affordable Care Act, a third of people in poverty are uninsured, especially Black and Latina women, which prevents them from accessing basic preventative care and necessary treatments.

Even more disturbing is the lack of health care available to immigrant women, who could not access Medicaid in some states even after the required 5-year waiting period. They wrote, "We heard appalling testimonies of migrant women who were diagnosed with breast cancer but could not afford the appropriate treatment."

In terms of reproductive health and rights, the report slams the much-reported chipping away of access to contraceptives, honest and scientifically-based sexual education for adolescents, and the right to terminate a pregnancy. Of this problem, the experts wrote, "The Group would like to recall that, under international human rights law, states must take all appropriate measures to ensure women’s equal right to decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children which includes women’s right to access contraceptives."

Perhaps less well-known is the problem of increasing incidences of death during childbirth, which has been rising since the 1990s, and is highest among Black women and in impoverished states.

A Dangerous Place for Women

The report concludes by echoing a 2011 report by the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, which found troubling rates of over-incarceration among women, sexual violence perpetrated against those incarcerated, "lack of alternatives to custodial sentences for women with dependent children, inappropriate access to health care and inadequate re-entry programmes." They also point to disturbingly high rates of violence experienced by Native women, and the disproportionate experience of gun violence among women due to the problem of domestic violence.

It's clear that the U.S. has a long way to go toward equality, but the report makes clear that there are many serious and pressing problems that must be addressed immediately. The lives and livelihoods of women are at stake.