United Nations Condemns U.S. Failure to Address Discrimination Against Women, Directs U.S. to Ratify ERA and CEDAW

The U.S. “should redouble its efforts to guarantee protection against sex and gender-based discrimination in its constitution, including through initiatives such as the Equal Rights Amendment,” according to the United Nations Human Rights Committee.

A rally on International Women’s Day outside the United Nations on March 8, 2023, in New York City. (Fatih Aktas / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The United Nations Human Rights Committee (HRC) issued a report on Nov. 3 detailing extensive human rights abuses against women and girls in the U.S., and condemning the U.S. government’s failure to meet its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil & Political Rights (ICCPR) to end these abuses. The ICCPR requires countries that have ratified the treaty to protect and preserve basic human rights.

In their fifth periodic report of the U.S., HRC directed the U.S. to address rampant discrimination against women in American law and society, including epidemic rates of violence against women and girls as well as violations of their sexual and reproductive rights. The committee specifically directed the U.S. government to recognize the fully ratified Equal Rights Amendment:

“The United States government should redouble its efforts to guarantee protection against sex and gender-based discrimination in its Constitution, including through initiatives such as the Equal Rights Amendment. The State party should also consider ratifying the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and its Optional Protocol.”

The U.S. is an outlier in the world by refusing to protect women’s rights.

Today, 85 percent of the 194 U.N. member states have a provision in their constitutions that specifically addresses gender equality, and an additional 115 have a provision that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex—yet the U.S. is not among these countries. 

The U.S. is also not among the 187 nations that have ratified the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The seven nations refusing to ratify CEDAW are Iran, Niue, Palau, Somalia, Sudan, Tonga and the U.S. 

U.S. advocates with the ERA Coalition, Equality Now, and other leading rights organizations testified before the U.N. Human Rights Committee last month in Geneva.

The ERA Coalition’s chief of policy and programs, Bettina Hager, testified about child marriage in the U.S.:

“Child marriage is legal in 40 U.S. states, including five states without any minimum age of marriage. At least 300,000 minors were legally married between 2000 and 2018, some as young as 10. 86 percent of the children who were married between 2000 and 2018 were girls, and most were married to adult men. In most U.S. states child marriage is considered a valid defense to statutory rape. The laws serve to condone child marriage and perpetuate sexual violence.

“We urge you to recommend the U.S. government prohibits child marriage and set the minimum age of marriage at 18 with no exceptions.”

Hager also testified about female genital mutilation (FGM) in America:

“We also submit that approximately 513,000 women and girls in the U.S. have undergone or are at risk of female genital mutilation, either in the U.S. or abroad. Despite a federal law against FGM, the practice continues and requires a comprehensive approach to end it.

“We urge you to recommend that FGM laws are implemented, strengthening state-level laws and collecting data on FGM.”

Hager concluded by urging the committee to direct the U.S. to recognize the fully ratified Equal Rights Amendment:

“The U.S. Constitution does not explicitly prohibit sex-based discrimination or gender inequality. Despite meeting all the requirements for ratification, the U.S. government refuses to recognize the Equal Rights Movement as the 28th Amendment, which will provide an explicit prohibition against sex discrimination in the Constitution. The ERA would help us address these and other sets of inequality problems by empowering Congress to enact federal laws in areas that have traditionally been the purview of the states.

“We urge you to recommend that the U.S. government comply with its obligations under the ICCPR and take every step necessary to implement the ERA as the 28th Amendment.”

The HRC report contained specific sections on gender equality, violence against women, missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, maternal mortality, voluntary termination of pregnancy, sexual and reproductive rights, and sex trafficking, among others. The report glaringly exposes how far U.S. women have to go to achieve basic human rights and equality.

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Carrie N. Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is the Sylvia Dlugasch Bauman professor of American Studies and the chair of the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. She is a contributing editor at Ms. magazine. You can contact Dr. Baker at cbaker@msmagazine.com or follow her on Twitter @CarrieNBaker.