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Healthcare, reproductive rights divide US, Canada

NEW YORK (TrustLaw) – On one side of the border, a woman can see a doctor for free and is guaranteed paid maternity leave. On the other, most women do not qualify for free healthcare and one in five under 65 does not have medical insurance.

These differences and others make Canada the best country among the world’s wealthiest nations for women and keep the United States out of the top five, according to a poll of experts released on Wednesday by TrustLaw, a legal news service run by Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The United States ranked sixth among the 19 countries in the Group of 20 economies, excluding the European Union economic grouping, in the global survey of 370 recognized gender specialists.

Germany, Britain, Australia and France followed Canada in that order, while India, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia polled the worst.

Despite similarities between Canada and the United States in education and economic opportunity, the countries are very different in the area of gender equality, the experts said. Canada’s constitution promotes and safeguards women’s rights while a lack of consensus over reproductive rights in particular erodes them in the United States, experts said.

“Canada leads the pack with its promotion of women’s access and opportunities across various sectors of society, including education, economic participation and healthcare,” said Sarah Degnan Kambou, president of the International Center for Research on Women in Washington, which took part in the survey.

The poll showed how the lack of universal health care and the struggle over abortion rights in the United States — important issues ahead of the November presidential election — were key to perceptions of women’s freedoms in the country, according to the experts polled.

Respondents came from 63 countries on five continents and included aid professionals, academics, health workers, policymakers, journalists and development specialists with experience in gender issues. Representatives of faith-based organizations were also surveyed.

While a pregnant woman in Canada is guaranteed 15 weeks paid maternity leave, she receives no federally guaranteed time off with pay in the United States. If the expectant mother is one of the 16% of American women under 65 with no health insurance — according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — she may have to forgo adequate prenatal and postnatal care because she can’t afford it.

Canada also ranks better than the United States on maternal mortality, reporting 12 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births in 2008, half the number recorded in the United States, according to the United Nations.

POLITICS, TREATIES AND RIGHTS

While women’s political representation in Canada lags behind some G20 countries, it fares better than in the United States. Nearly a quarter of seats in Canada’s lower house of parliament are held by women, compared to 17% in the United States, according to data from the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

“Our political participation levels, particularly in Congress, are embarrassingly low as compared to other countries in the G20, such as South Africa, Germany and Argentina,” said ICRW’s Kambou. In South Africa, women hold 42 percent of seats in parliament’s lower house.

Canada was one of the first countries to sign and ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), often referred to as the international bill of rights for women.

The United States is the only democracy and the only G20 country that has yet to ratify CEDAW, primarily due to concerns of religious and social conservatives that it will undermine what they call “traditional family values.”

Neither Canada nor the United States has managed to resolve the gender pay gap.

The status of reproductive rights — considered a basic human right by many of the experts polled — continues to be a big issue for women in the United States, survey respondents said.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, which promotes sexual and reproductive rights, U.S. legislators enacted 92 provisions that restricted access to abortion in 24 states in 2011. So far this year, nine provisions that restrict access to abortion have been enacted at state level.

Women’s control over reproductive health was one of the issues experts were asked to consider when ranking the G20 countries as part of a broad health category that also included maternal mortality, access to healthcare, HIV/AIDS and access to adequate nutrition.

About a third of U.S. women said they believe there is a broad effort to curtail access to choices and services like contraception, family planning and abortion, a recent survey by the non-profit Kaiser Family Foundation found.

“It’s not surprising the U.S. did not make the top 5 ‘best’ countries, given the serious violations of women’s rights that continue to occur,” said Yasmeen Hassan, Global Director of Equality Now.

Aside from quality of health, the TrustLaw survey asked respondents to rank G20 countries in terms of the overall best and worst places for women and in the categories of freedom from violence, participation in politics, workplace opportunities, access to resources like education and property rights and freedom from trafficking and slavery.

For full coverage of the poll visit, g20women.trust.org