America’s War on Women Goes Global

Andrea Ackerman is a staff specialist focusing on Fair Work for the migration program at Open Society Foundations. She recently attended the centenary International Labour Conference of the International Labour Organization (ILO), the United Nations tripartite agency focused on advancing social justice and decent work, where the convention on gender-based violence and harassment in the world of work was just passed. These views do not reflect those of Open Society Foundations or the ILO, and are her own. Originally from Atlanta, Andrea is now based in New York City.

Originally published in The Stand or Fall Issue on July 13, 2019.

Photograph by Richard Martin

It is no coincidence that nine states across the South and Midwest are currently proposing some of the most restrictive laws on abortion at the same time the U.S. government is deliberately working to undermine most of the international agreements that define and protect women’s rights. 

Conservatives in the U.S. have waged the anti-abortion battle since long before Donald Trump took office. However, the President has taken his crusade against women to the global stage by siding with the most authoritarian leaders and repressive regimes in the world through peddling a staunch anti-human rights agenda.

The rhetoric around abortion in America demonstrates that pulling out of these agreements is not solely a foreign policy move—it is a tactful signal to its own population and the world that America fully condones dismantling the rights and protections of women and girls.

Examples of this that carry significant impact around gender-based violence and harassment and reproductive health and rights include: 

The withdrawal of the U.S. from the Human Rights Council, “an intergovernmental body within the UN that holds the responsibility to promote and protect human rights globally and to address human rights violations, including violence against women” 

— The proposed removal of language around universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights in a UN resolution on the prevention of rape in war zones because “Trump administration officials say the term ‘sexual and reproductive health’ refers to abortion”

— The proposal of the U.S. delegation to the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) to remove language from an outcome document reaffirming the U.S.’s support for the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (the global standard blueprint for women’s rights)

— Additionally, the removal of the word “gender” from outcome documents of the CSW

The withdrawal from UNESCO, the UN cultural organization dedicated to “promoting sex education, literacy, clean water, and equality for women”

The U.S. is one of seven countries in the world that has not ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and is the only industrialized democracy and country in the Western hemisphere that has not done so. 

The U.S. is doing the least (along with Russia) among G20 nations to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by all countries to “end poverty, protect the planet, reduce inequality, and generally improve the well-being of everyone in the world.”

Under the visage of “America First,” Trump’s isolationist foreign policy approach, many argue that these withdrawals have nothing to do with gender due to the fact that the U.S. is backing out of other international treaties. So far, the U.S. has disengaged around climate change (Paris climate accord), trade (Trans Pacific Partnership, NAFTA), security (global arms treaty), and nuclear non-proliferation, (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty), and others. It cannot be understated that the effect of pulling out of agreements on climate change, trade, security, and nuclear non-proliferation have disproportionate costs to women, girls, and vulnerable populations worldwide.

Regardless of the cynicism around the utility of multilateral institutions, global agreements and treaties set international standards that often translate into domestic law and are treated as legal precedent. These agreements are effective in that they put pressure on governments, serve as public statements to international community, become customary laws, impact U.S.-based multinational companies, and oftentimes actually become U.S. laws, i.e. the ILO trade convention that is now U.S. tax law.

Yet, the U.S. notoriously fails to ratify most treaties.

It is a fact that countries who prioritize women’s rights and equality are more prosperous economically and are more peaceful. In states such as Georgia with anti-abortion legislation on the table, there is growing economic uncertainty due to the potential threat of employers boycotting the state over the bill, which would only serve to punish Southern women more for a bill they did not ask for. (Sound vaguely familiar to another crime committed against women?)

With the rise of the #MeToo movement across the globe, we are witnessing two extremes: a global reckoning with the mistreatment of women and girls, which has culminated in the passing of a global convention on the prevention of gender-based violence and harassment in the world of work at the ILO’s centenary conference in June 2019. Alternatively, we are experiencing the fierce backlash against this movement for challenging the patriarchal status quo, which has led to increases in violence against women in many communities, meaning there are greater risks to the lives of human rights defenders working to negate the war on women. 

If the U.S. continues down its isolationist, anti-rights path, we will continue to see the rise of other global powers in its place; the spread of authoritarian populism alongside the decline of women’s reproductive rights and LGBTQI protections; increased economic inequality, corruption, and violence; and the growing effects of climate change, which disproportionately impact women, notably women of color.

History (or herstory) shows us that feminist activism and women’s movements are the key drivers of pushing for the protection of women’s rights in international law. It is time to become more than an ally and do more. Combatting hateful rhetoric in places like the South and Midwest through shifting dominant patriarchal narratives is a place to start. Volunteering and calling your representatives are clear actions one can take at the individual level. Unifying social justice movements so that all vulnerable communities are working together in solidarity to challenge oppression leads to lasting victories for women and vulnerable people not just in America, but across the world. 

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