If you imagine countries where women and girls have it worst, the United States probably doesn’t come to mind.
Is now the time?
Here, women can drive; they don’t need male guardians to travel, work or receive health care. Girls can pursue an education without fear of being attacked or abducted for wanting to learn. They are rarely forced into marriages at young ages, kidnapped by would-be husbands or killed if they choose whom to love.
Stories like these may happen elsewhere, but they shock American sensibilities. We prefer to think of our country as an example of what is possible.
But there are ways in which the United States lags behind other nations – sometimes in principle; other times in practice.
And some of those ways may surprise you.
Hand-in-hand with Iran and Sudan
It’s considered an “international bill of rights for women.” It promises to end discrimination, establish equality and fight against violence. Nearly all the 193 member states of the United Nations have ratified it.
Only seven haven’t: Iran, Palau, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Tonga. And the United States.
The Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women – or CEDAW, as it’s known – was adopted by the United Nations in 1979.
It’s the biggest treaty creating specific guarantees for women and girls since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was established in 1948, when the United Nations said all people, regardless of sex, “are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”
By ratifying CEDAW, 186 member states have committed – at least on paper – to ending discrimination against women and establishing equality in everything from health care and education to political participation, employment and marriage. With this comes an agreement, in principle, to combat societal ills like gender-related violence and sex trafficking.
The United States is a signatory to CEDAW, but to ratify such a treaty, two-thirds of the Senate must vote in favor of it. CEDAW has never made it to the Senate floor for a vote.
Just like Niue
Mothers of newborns are guaranteed paid leave in 188 countries, the WORLD Policy Analysis Center reports.
Only nine countries do not. Guess which one is among them? The United States. The others: Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Suriname and Tonga.
The company we keep shrinks further when you consider that five of those countries – Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, Suriname and Tonga – guarantee paid maternity leave for public sector workers.
That leaves just four countries with no guaranteed paid leave for new mothers. The United States is the only high-income, developed country with this distinction.
And let’s not even begin to list all the countries that guarantee paid leave to both fathers and mothers, a practice that not only offers new fathers more time with children but also gives mothers support and the option to head back to work more quickly if they choose. Just know that 49% of countries provide paid leave to both new parents, including Saudi Arabia.
Among the dozens of countries where women are better off, according to this measure, are the United Arab Emirates and Norway, the Kyrgyz Republic and Canada, Egypt, Iceland, Japan, Botswana, Honduras and Ethiopia.
The top five, in descending order: Burundi, Mongolia, Qatar, Thailand and Malaysia.
In 2013, women who worked full-time, year-round in the United States were paid 78% of what men were paid – or 78 cents for every dollar earned on average by men, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That gap, though, is worse for women of color: Black women make 64 cents and Latinas make 56 cents for every dollar earned by a white man.
Women in Rwanda and India rule
The United States now has more women in Congress than ever: 104, to be exact.
Still, that’s only 19.4% of the 535 seats on Capitol Hill, which isn’t so impressive when you consider females make up 51% of the population.
But wait. There’s more.
The U.S. Congress ranks in the bottom half of national parliaments around the world when it comes to female members, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union.
Rwanda sits in a comfortable lead, with women making up nearly 64% of its lower house and 38.5% of the Senate. The rest of the top 10: Bolivia, Andorra, Cuba, Seychelles, Sweden, Senegal, Finland, Ecuador and South Africa.
The U.S. Congress is ranked in 72nd place out of 139 spots (190 countries were included in the rankings, but there were nearly 50 ties).
Women are represented more in Uganda, Algeria, Afghanistan, Iraq, China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
So how big of a deal is Hillary Clinton’s presumed Democratic nomination for President?
While 52 countries have had a female head of state over the past 50 years – including India for 21 of those years – the United States is among those that never have, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2014.
Other countries that have had women in charge include Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Liberia and China.
Afghanistan trumps U.S.
There are 197 constitutions across the globe, and 165 of them – or about 84% – explicitly guarantee gender equality, the WORLD Policy Analysis Center reports. Eleven of these constitutions, however, allow religious or customary laws to override parts or all of the constitution.
Only 32 constitutions do not include an explicit gender equality guarantee. The U.S. Constitution is one of them. Though parts of the Constitution – like the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment – may appear to protect women, even Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has said this isn’t the case.
“Certainly the Constitution does not require discrimination on the basis of sex. The only issue is whether it prohibits it. It doesn’t,” he said in the January 2011 issue of California Lawyer.
Americans drafted the post-World War II Japanese constitution, which lays out equal rights for women. When it was noted that Japanese women now had more rights than their American counterparts, the 22-year-old woman who helped put that language in Japan’s document – Beate Sirota Gordon – replied, “That’s not very difficult to do, because women are not in the American Constitution.”
Even Afghanistan’s constitution includes equal rights provisions for women. And while they may not be enforced, says Jessica Neuwirth, founder and president of the ERA Coalition, the language offers a legal framework lawyers can use to work on behalf of women.
The Equal Rights Amendment, meant to give women in America the sort of explicit protections now offered in constitutions across the globe, was first introduced to Congress in 1923. Both houses of Congress passed it in 1972. It then went to state legislatures, requiring the ratification of 38 states. But by the time the 1982 deadline hit, it had fallen three states short.
Today, a new revitalized movement to ratify the ERA is gaining steam. To the women and men behind the push, including an unlikely alliance of politicians, it is unfinished business they want to see completed. It’s long overdue, they say, and would prove to the world that women in the United States matter.