The US is failing to protect women’s rights

The US is failing to protect women’s rights

The US is failing to uphold women’s rights, according to a report by leading women’s rights organisations submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Council earlier this month.

In the report, the groups state that despite the public commitments the US government made towards gender equality, many shortfalls remain, and it is not meeting its legal obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) – of which the US is a signatory and has ratified.

“While the US champions human rights on the global stage, it cannot ignore the pressing issues and inequalities faced by its own citizens,” it says. “It is time for the US to align its actions at home with its professed commitment to supporting women’s rights elsewhere.”

The Alliance for Universal Digital Rights, Equality Now, the ERA Coalition, Unchained At Last, and the US End FGM/C Network presented the submission ahead of the 139th session of the Human Rights Committee taking place between October 9 and November 3, 2023.

Under the ICCPR treaty, countries are obliged to protect and preserve basic human rights, including equality before the law, sex equality, and freedom from torture. It also explicitly prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex.

In the submitted report, the organisations highlighted areas where violations in the US persist, including child marriage, female genital mutilation and cutting, online sexual exploitation and abuse, and sex-based discrimination.

Lack of constitutional gender equality

The US Constitution, the country’s most authoritative legal document, does not guarantee equality on the basis of sex and equal rights for women – which is in direct violation of the international treaty.

The current constitutional jurisprudence leaves protections against sex discrimination extremely vulnerable, and women’s rights organisations and activists have been pleading with the federal government to certify and include the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) into the US Constitution.

First proposed 100 years ago, the ERA is a proposed amendment to the Constitution that would ensure the right to sex equality by law. Elevating sex to the same level of protection afforded to race or religion would mean that sex-discriminatory laws could be struck down more easily. However, despite the ERA meeting all the requirements for ratification, the US Government refuses to recognise it, previously asserting that it is sufficient that states address sex discrimination in their own constitutions.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, 22 out of 50 states have added equal rights amendments to their state constitutions. However, in their report, the organisations claim that 19 state-level efforts do not satisfy the US obligations as a nation under the treaty. And even if every state in the US had an ERA in their state constitution, the federal and state courts could continue to be inconsistent in their rulings regarding claims of sex discrimination.

Brennan Center for Justice, ERA
Source: Brennan Center for Justice

“This year marks a century of advocacy to get the ERA into the US Constitution – something every other industrialised democracy on the planet already has stated in their own constitutional documents,” says Zakiya Thomas, the president and CEO of the ERA Coalition and Fund for Women’s Equality. “How can we call ourselves the leaders of the free world without recognizing the basic equality of all our people? The answer is: we can’t.

“We must remedy this travesty of justice now and insist the US Constitution include an explicit protection against sex discrimination in compliance with the ICCPR. We urge the Human Rights Committee to recommend the United States finally recognize and publish the Equal Rights Amendment as the 28th Amendment to the US Constitution. A move that is more than a century past due,” she adds.

Child marriage is still legal in most US states

Child marriage, where one or both parties are under the age of 18, is legal in 40 states – including five states without any absolute minimum age of marriage. Child marriage disproportionately affects girls, who account for 86% of minors who are married, most of whom are wed to adult men.

Child brides report high rates of physical, sexual, financial, and emotional abuse during their marriages, as well as early and unplanned pregnancies and poor mental and physical health. It also disrupts education: girls who marry are more likely to drop out of school, earn less over their lifetimes, and live in poverty.

“This month, when the United Nations Human Rights Committee reviews the United States’ commitment to human and political rights, we want to make sure it knows how far behind this country is in stopping the abuse that is child marriage. It’s time for the United States to be held accountable,” says Fraidy Reiss, founder of Unchained At Last, a survivor-led nonprofit working to end forced and child marriage in the US.

According to the organisation, at least 300,000 minors were legally married between 2000 and 2008 – with some as young as ten years old – and 60,000 child marriages occurred at an age or with a spousal age difference that should have been considered a sex crime.

The organisation explains that in most states, child marriage is considered a valid defense to statutory rape, which entails an adult having sex with a minor. The federal and state laws which provide a marital exception to statutory rape serve to condone and promote child marriage in cases where the act itself is criminal, especially according to universal human rights standards. Unless legally emancipated, girls in child marriages have limited access to justice due to their status as a minor – a violation of the ICCPR, which recognises the right of every child, without any discrimination, to receive protection from the state.

Lack of comprehensive protections against female genital mutilation

Female genital mutilation or cutting (FGM/C) is internationally recognised as a human rights violation and a form of torture and violence against women and girls. It can cause life-long physical and psychological trauma and occurs across cultural, religious, and socio-economic groups.

“FGM/C is a practice that harms women and girls all over the world, and the United States is no exception,” says Caitlin LeMay, the executive Director of the US End FGM/C Network. “We remain hopeful that following this submission at the international level, the United States will be compelled to address its ongoing human rights violations linked to female genital mutilation or cutting of women and girls who reside in the country.”

In the US, it’s a federal crime to perform FGM/C, or to take someone abroad for the procedure, and yet at least 513,000 women and girls have undergone or are at risk of FGM/C. While 41 states have introduced laws on FGM/C, legal protections vary considerably between states, and nine states have yet to pass any specific laws against this harmful practice.

Lack of protection from online sexual exploitation and abuse

As a global hub for technological development and business, the US is an epicentre for online sexual exploitation and abuse (OSEA). According to the US Department of Justice, approximately 40% of sex trafficking victims in the US are recruited online, and in 2020, over 80% of sex trafficking prosecutions involved online advertising.

Although the US has passed federal and state legislation addressing aspects of online exploitation, women’s rights organisations report significant gaps and inconsistencies between laws in different states, which affect adults who have experienced online grooming, extortion, and AI-generated or manipulated images of sexual abuse.

48 states have laws that criminalise image-based sexual abuse, such as the online posting of explicit images of someone without their consent, or the non-consensual recording and distribution of someone’s intimate body parts. However, some state laws are flawed or include unnecessarily burdensome requirements that make it difficult for victims to be protected: in Arizona, for example, the law requires an “intent to harm or harass”.

Some US states, like Florida and Illinois, prohibit the online solicitation of children, but do not protect adults who may also be vulnerable to online grooming. By also failing to extend protections to exploited children once they become adults, the law fails to acknowledge the long-term nature of online grooming.

“Digital platforms and service providers should be mandated to implement easy-to-use, clear, and efficient policies and procedures relating to posting, sharing, publication, and removal of OSEA material on their platforms, and with penalties issued when providers fail to comply with the law,” says Amanda Manyame, a member of the AUDRi Steering Committee and Digital Law and Rights Advisor at Equality Now. “In addition, adequate resources must be allocated to investigate and prosecute OSEA cases and support victims’ access to the legal system.”

The report also calls for urgent action from the US Government to sign and ratify international and regional treaties that protect the rights of women and girls. It highlights that the US remains one of only seven countries in the world, with Iran, Sudan, Somalia, Nauru, Palau and Tonga, that has not yet ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). It is also the only country which is yet to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the international treaty which sets out the civil, political, economic, social, health and cultural rights of children.


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