In December 2015, the UN Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice (WGDAW) issued its end-of-mission statement regarding the status of women’s equality in the United States (US). The US is one of only seven countries that has not ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). There is a myth that US women already enjoy all CEDAW’s rights and protections. But the WGDAW concluded that the US falls behind international standards regarding women’s public and political representation, their economic and social rights, and their health and safety protections, with ethnic minorities and undocumented immigrants being the worst affected.
Although representation of women in the legislature is the highest it has been in US history, there is still cause for alarm. The US is placed only 72nd in the global rankings for legislative representation and only 4 out of 15 members of Cabinet are women. Barriers for women in politics are created by the greater difficulties women face in fundraising for campaigns, where massive sums are usually raised in male-dominated networks, exacerbated by the removal of restrictions on campaign funding by the Supreme Court. While programs for public funding do exist, private funding would have to be capped in order to give women an equal chance. Women in politics are also disadvantaged by biased presentation in the media, and currently by the hostile rhetoric of some candidates in the Presidential primaries.
US women do not take their rightful place in the world’s leading economy, despite constituting nearly half of its labour force. Women employees do not enjoy the minimum rights required under international human rights law. Occupational segregation and the 21% gender wage gap persist, and yet US equal-pay laws do not guarantee equal pay for work of equal value. Minimum wages sit well below a living wage, with the majority of minimum-wage earners being women (who dominate domestic work and service jobs). The percentage of women in poverty has increased to 14.5% over the past decade — a higher rate than men. Severe problems for impoverished women include homelessness, increased exposure to gender-based violence and the unavailability of adequate legal aid.
Other than a prohibition of dismissal for reasons of pregnancy under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, the provisions for workplace accommodation for pregnant women, post-natal mothers and women with care responsibilities fall far beneath international human rights requirements. The US is one of only two countries without national paid maternity leave, and only seven states have introduced paid maternity leave. There is also no provision for affordable childcare.
Despite improvements under the Affordable Care Act, health care coverage is still not universal and too many women pay the price — sometimes with their lives. A third of the people living in poverty remain uninsured, a majority of whom are women (predominantly Afro-American and Hispanic). There are additional restrictions for documented migrants and perpetual exclusion of undocumented migrants from any — other than emergency — healthcare. The maternal mortality rate increased by 136% between 1990 and 2013, with distressing ethnic and socio-economic disparities — black women are nearly four times more at risk to die in childbirth.
The WGDAW expressed concern at restrictions on women’s access to reproductive health services, restrictions that have a discriminatory impact on poor women. Abortion has been recognised as a constitutional right under Roe v Wade but access to legal termination of pregnancy has been truncated by the Hyde Amendment and, in a significant number of states, by the imposition of problematic procedural barriers, the lack of universal marketplace insurance coverage, the stigma attached to having an abortion, the unreasonable requirements on clinics, and the lack of protection provided to clinicians and patients in the face of anti-abortion violence. The Supreme Court’s exemption in Hobby Lobby to the provision of contraceptive insurance on grounds of conscience is also troubling.
There remains a gap between rhetoric and reality in the US on women’s right to equality. Though the current Administration has committed to ratifying CEDAW, the polarisation of politics is profoundly affecting the Government’s ability to do so and to guarantee women’s international human rights nationwide. The US is ironically allowing its women to lag behind international standards. While all women are the victims of these missing rights, poor women, Native American women, Afro-American and Hispanic ethnic minorities, migrant women, LBTQ women, women with disabilities, and older women are disparately vulnerable.
The UN Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice was created by the Human Rights Council in 2011 to identify, promote and exchange views, in consultation with States and other actors, on good practices related to the elimination of laws that discriminate against women. The Group is also tasked with developing a dialogue with States and other actors on laws that have a discriminatory impact where women are concerned. The Working Group is composed of five independent experts: the Current Chair-Rapporteur Eleonora Zielinska (Poland), the Vice-Chair Alda Facio (Costa Rica) and the other members Emna Aouij (Tunisia), Kamala Chandrakirana (Indonesia), and Frances Raday (Israel/United Kingdom).