Three Takeaways from a UN Human Rights Group Visit to the U.S.

Part of the United Nations working group which visited the United States, at a conference in Chile last year.

Part of the United Nations working group which visited the United States, at a conference in Chile last year.

After a recent trip, a United Nations group for women’s rights declared they’d seen “unprecedented hostile stereotyping of women,” “increasingly restrictive legislative measures” along with “violent attacks to prevent women’s access to exercise of their reproductive rights,” and lastly an “increase in the rate of women living in poverty.”

Where had they visited? Somewhere in Africa, Latin America, or Southeast Asia? No. They were talking about the United States. The UN group of three independent human rights experts – Eleonora Zielinska of Poland, Alda Facio of Costa Rica, and Frances Raday of Israel and the United Kingdom – visited Washington D.C., Alabama, Oregon and Texas over a ten-day trip.

They highlighted a variety of concerns in six realms: women in global context, public and political life, economic and social life, access to health care, reproductive health and rights, safety. Here, I’ll focus on the three most striking points to me.

“The US is one of only two countries in the world without a mandatory paid maternity leave for all women workers.”

  • We share this dubious title with Papua New Guinea. Oman used to be part of the club, but this summer the Omani government passed a law giving women time off after birth. But, wait, maybe you’re thinking that your coworker recently went on paid maternity leave from her job… so what’s that about? Half of all American workers are covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act, which gives employees of companies with more than 50 people the ability to take unpaid, job-protected leave for up to 12 weeks. If that leave is paid, that’s a “perk” that comes with the job. At this point, most corporate employees expect maternity and paternity leave. Employees with higher levels of education and more flexibility can often demand these policies, but low-wage workers with little job flexibility need the government to act.

“The gender wage gap is 21%, affecting women’s income throughout their lives.”

  • I think we’d all agree that if a woman and a man have the same job, they should be equally paid. Yet, on average, the American woman is getting paid $0.79 to the man’s dollar. For women of color, the gap is even higher. Then, let’s say they both invest their earnings. Over time, women and their families are losing out even more.

“Although women have a legal right to terminate a pregnancy under federal law, ever increasing barriers are being created to prevent their access to abortion procedures.”

  • The UN experts were shocked at the “intimidation and harassment” in their visits to health clinics. And, the aftermath of the shooting at a Colorado Planned Parenthood clinic, this intimidation feels very real. They stressed that freedom of religion cannot be used to excuse discrimination against women, particularly to deny women access to high standards of care.

While this paints a glum portrait of life as a woman in the United States, it’s not all bad. As young women in the United States, we have the power to demand change. This year, we’ve seen women across a variety of sectors – from policy wonk Anne-Marie Slaughter, to politician Hillary Clinton, to actress Jennifer Lawrence, to writer Lena Dunham, to musician Taylor Swift – speak out on these issues.

And you can speak out too. In this season of Presidential elections, do your research and tell your friends to do theirs. Support the candidates who care about women and will advocate to pass paid parental leave, close the gender wage gap, and increase – not decrease – access to women’s health care. On a personal level, if you’re switching jobs, negotiate your benefits and salary, and keep fighting the good fight for women’s rights.

Check out the UN news release here. The full report is forthcoming.



Hilary Ross headshot
Hilary Ross is currently the Program Events Specialist at the Big Sister Association of Greater Boston. Prior to that, she was a Fulbright Fellow in Vietnam and a Communications Coordinator at the World Resources Institute, a leading environmental and development research organization, in Washington, DC. She has a BA in International Relations from Tufts University, with a focus in political identity. She’s interested in politics, gender, and international development from a systems perspective. In her free time, she likes to read the New Yorker magazine and eat snacks.