The discrimination against women in the United States is worse than in most developed countries, according to findings of a United Nations expert group.
“The US, which is a leading state in formulating international human rights standards, is allowing women to lag behind,” said the human rights monitors, composing the UN expert group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice, at the end of an official visit to the country.
The preliminary report which will be released in full to the UN Human Rights Council next year, described an “overall picture of women’s missing rights.”
The mission examined the conditions for women in areas like economic and social life, access to health care, reproductive health and rights, as well as women’s safety.
“While all women are the victims of these missing rights, women who are poor, belong to Native American, Afro-American and Hispanic ethnic minorities, migrant women, LBTQ women, women with disabilities and older women are disparately vulnerable,” the experts stressed.
Speaking to reporters in Washington after the conclusion of a ten-day visit to Alabama, Oregon, Texas and Washington, DC , the UN monitors called some of the findings “shocking” and “myth-shattering”.
In the US, women constitute nearly half of the labour force, at a participation rate of 57 percent, and have been an important factor in driving the last decades of the country’s economic growth.
Yet, the UN experts voiced concerns “that this crucial labour force participation by women is not accompanied by equal economic opportunity.”
Furthermore, “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 gender wage gap is more than 20 percent, affecting women’s income throughout their lives, increasing women’s pension poverty. Again, women’s earnings differ considerably by ethnicity: Afro-American, Native American and Hispanic women have the lowest earnings.
Another severe problem, according to the UN monitors, is wage theft, particularly in manufacturing, construction and some service jobs. This impacts low-income and migrant workers, in particular undocumented women.
In addition, the US is one of only two countries in the world (the other being Papua New Guinea) without mandatory paid maternity leave for all women workers. “This is unthinkable in most other societies,” said Frances Raday, one of the UN monitors.
Paid maternity leave is only provided in three states (California, New Jersey, Rhode Island) and in federal government employment, but it is just for six weeks, which is beneath the international minimum of 14 weeks.
Perhaps the most stunning revelations, is the sharp increase in maternal mortality rates in the US, according to the human rights experts. The ratio went up by 136 percent between 1990 and 2013.
“These numbers also hide distressing ethnic and socio-economic disparities. Afro-American women are nearly four times more at risk to die in childbirth,” the report says.
The expert group cautioned that US women face ever increasing obstacles to accessing reproductive health services, both as a result of legislative restrictions in many states and because of violent attacks on abortion clinic staff and patients.
“We witnessed the intimidation and harassment in our visit to clinics in Alabama and Texas,” the experts said. Indeed, just before their arrival in the US, a gunman killed three people at a Planned Parenthood Family Planning Center in Colorado.
“But what is perhaps most distressing is that there is almost no political willingness, but rather opposition to improve the situation.”
The chances that change will work its way through the country’s legislatures, are slim.
Women hold less than 20 percent of Congressional seats and their representation in state legislatures varies widely between 13 percent and 46 percent, with an average of just below 25 percent.
This represents the highest level of legislative representation ever achieved by women in the US. However, it still places the country at only 72 in global ranking.