A delegation of human rights experts from Poland, the United Kingdom and Costa Rica spent 10 days this month touring the United States so they can prepare a report on the nation's overall treatment of women. The three women, who lead a United Nations working group on discrimination against women, visited Alabama, Texas and Oregon to evaluate a wide range of U.S. policies and attitudes, as well as school, health and prison systems.
The delegates were appalled by the lack of gender equality in America. They found the U.S. to be lagging far behind international human rights standards in a number of areas, including its 23 percent gender pay gap, maternity leave, affordable child care and the treatment of female migrants in detention centers.
The most telling moment of the trip, the women told reporters on Friday, was when they visited an abortion clinic in Alabama and experienced the hostile political climate around women's reproductive rights.
"We were harassed. There were two vigilante men waiting to insult us," said Frances Raday, the delegate from the U.K. The men repeatedly shouted, "You're murdering children!" at them as soon as they neared the clinic, even though Raday said they are clearly past childbearing age.
"It's a kind of terrorism," added Eleonora Zielinska, the delegate from Poland. "To us, it was shocking."
In most European countries, she explained, abortions are performed at general doctors' offices and hospitals that offer all kinds of other health services, so there aren't protesters waiting to heckle the women who enter.
The women discovered during their visit that women in the United States have "missing rights" compared to the rest of the world. For instance, the U.S. is one of three countries in the world that does not guarantee women paid maternity leave, according to the U.N. International Labour Organization. The U.N. suggests that countries guarantee at least 14 weeks of paid parental leave. Some countries go further -- Iceland requires five months paid leave for each parent, and an additional two months to be shared between them.
"The lack of accommodation in the workplace to women's pregnancy, birth and post-natal needs is shocking," Raday said. "Unthinkable in any society, and certainly one of the richest societies in the world."
Another main area of concern for the delegation is violence against women -- particularly gun violence. Women are 11 times more likely to be killed by a gun in the United States than in other high-income countries, and most of those murders are perpetrated by an intimate partner. While the Obama administration has talked a lot about combatting violence against women, its efforts have been frustrated by Congress' inability to pass new federal gun restrictions.
"Some states have introduced gun control laws regarding domestic violence, refusing to give perpetrators of domestic violence the right to possess firearms," Raday said. "This should be a national policy, not an isolated state policy."
While federal law prohibits those convicted of misdemeanor domestic abuse from purchasing a gun, it does not require them to surrender the guns they already own. Further, the law does not include domestic abusers who are not married to or co-habitating with their victims, and it does not include people with temporary restraining orders issued against them for domestic violence.
The women's other recommendations for the U.S. include passing campaign finance reform that would allow more women to be elected into office, because the networks that raise money for political candidates are mostly dominated by men. They also suggested raising the minimum wage, which disproportionately affects women, and passing a federal law to stop the slew of new abortion restrictions in the states that are shutting down women's health clinics across the South.
"Religious freedom does not justify discrimination against women, nor does it justify depriving women of their rights to the highest standard of health care," Raday said.
While the delegates were shocked by many things they saw in the U.S., perhaps the biggest surprise of their trip, they said, was learning that women in the country don't seem to know what they're missing.
"So many people really believe that U.S. women are way better off with respect to rights than any woman in the world," Raday said. "They would say, 'Prove it! What do you mean other people have paid maternity leave?'"
The U.N. experts concluded their trip by meeting with the White House and numerous government agencies, including the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Justice, to lay out their recommendations. They plan to present the full report to the U.N. Human Rights Council in June 2016.
This article has been updated with additional context about how the law affects people convicted of domestic abuse.