Half of American Women Feel Unsafe Because They Are Women

March 2021

By Jeni Klugman and Elena Ortiz

March 31, 2021

The US ranks 19th out of 167 countries in the world in terms of women’s status and opportunities, according to the Georgetown Institute of Women, Peace and Security. Countries like Norway and Canada score best while Afghanistan and Yemen are at the bottom.

But country averages can conceal large disparities within national borders. Indeed, when Georgetown undertook investigations of all 50 states and Washington DC, we found Massachusetts at the top scored four times higher in terms of women’s status and opportunities than Louisiana at the bottom (figure 1), with large racial disparities in every state. Black women in New Jersey, for example, experience maternal mortality at rates nearly quadruple those for white women.

There is much to do to advance the status of women in the US and the Biden administration—and its new White House Gender Policy Council tasked with advancing gender equality and combatting systemic discrimination— is well positioned to embark on the reforms needed.

Note: Possible index scores range from a low of 0 to a high of 1

Source: GIWPS & PRIO 2019. [/vc_column_text][vc_column_text disable_pattern=”false” el_class=”blog-p”]There is widespread support for this agenda: four in five adults believe it is important for elected officials to advance gender equality, according to a Georgetown survey in partnership with YouGov and Perry Undem.

Where do we start? We argue that the Biden administration should focus on women’s legal protections, affordable childcare, and sexual and reproductive health.

First, universal legal protections for women are key, including ensuring abusers do not have access to firearms. Only 13 states currently enforce the relinquishment of firearms by domestic violence perpetrators subject to protective orders. Shortfalls in national legislation mean that women are at higher risk of violence: when an abuser has access to a gun, victims are five times more likely to be killed.

Across the country, nearly half of women surveyed said they “feel unsafe because they are a woman” frequently or sometimes in their daily life. Strengthening legal protections for women, including the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), is a critical entry point for increasing security and justice.

The updated VAWA, passed in the House and pending Senate approval, would be a major step forward. For the first time, it would prevent perpetrators of stalking from accessing firearms, grant tribal courts authority to prosecute non-Indigenous perpetrators of violence against Indigenous women, and close the “boyfriend loophole”, a current shortfall in federal law that allows abusers who have not formerly cohabitated with victims to access firearms.

Women also need basic economic rights – including decent pay. President Biden has pledged to increase the federal hourly minimum wage to $15, which would benefit 23 million working women, including 43 percent of single working women and more than one in three women of color. Women are better positioned to leave abusive relationships and fight workplace harassment when they earn a living wage.

Second, access to affordable childcare is critical to ensuring equal opportunities in the workplace – a need that has been amplified by the COVID-19 crisis. Women are leaving the workforce during the pandemic at four times the rate of men, and Black, Latinx, and women of color—disproportionately represented among low-wage workers—have left the workforce at even higher rates due to childcare needs. Even before the pandemic, American mothers were 40 percent more likely than fathers to report that lack of childcare harmed their careers. This has short term repercussions on financial security and child wellbeing and long-term costs for women’s career prospects and retirement earnings.

Countries as varied as Australia and South Korea have shown how government policies can alleviate the burdens of caregiving on women.  President Biden has pledged to support states in subsidizing childcare in order to ensure that it is universally affordable, and to provide access to free, high-quality pre-kindergarten for children ages 3-4 years.

The COVID-19 Relief Bill allocates $39 billion to support affordable childcare through subsidies to childcare centers and low-income parents. While this legislation offers much-needed immediate relief, the administration should work to expand and sustain federal support for childcare in the post-pandemic period in order to facilitate paid work for women and strengthen the long-term prospects for children, especially low-income children of color.

Third, there is a critical need to safeguard access to reproductive healthcare and a woman’s right to choose. Our index reveals huge gaps across states in access to reproductive health services. In Wyoming, fewer than 1 in 20 women live in a county with an abortion provider, compared with 19 in 20 women in states like California.  All state Medicaid programs cover abortion costs in extreme cases— rape, incest, and when the mother’s life is in jeopardy (although South Dakota only covers the last case). While states have the option to cover a broader range of abortions with their own funds, only 16 states currently cover abortions for low-income women insured by Medicaid.

Ensuring access begins with several key reforms in the Democratic Party platform, namely reversing roll-backs to the Affordable Care Act’s coverage of contraception and reversing the changes to patient non-discrimination protections and religious exemptions that the Trump administration introduced.  Targeted grants could be used by the Biden administration to incentivize states to expand funding dedicated to ensuring universal access, especially for low-income women.

Women’s safety, economic opportunities, and access to healthcare interact in important ways, especially for women who are disadvantaged on other fronts.  Because gender inequality in the US is compounded by racial and class-based discrimination, intersectional approaches to reform are needed. The Biden Administration, with the important new Gender Policy Council in place, should undertake the further reforms needed to demonstrate that advancing the status and opportunities for all women and girls in the United States is indeed a top priority.

Dr. Jeni Klugman is Managing Director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security. Elena Ortiz is a senior at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service and a research assistant at the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security.


Women’s Local Political Leadership Key to Managing COVID-19 Impacts

March 2021

March 6, 2021

Devaki Singh1, Madhu Joshi1, Shiney Chakraborty2, Anamika Priyadarshini1

1 Centre for Catalyzing Change, India

2 Economist based in New Delhi, India

The COVID-19 pandemic is an extraordinary public health and economic emergency. Bihar, the third most populous state of India, is uniquely challenged, as it also faced the influx of returning migrants, straining an overburdened administrative machinery. Even so, the pandemic highlighted the myriad ways in which grassroots women leaders have engaged in relief and rebuilding activities, supporting their community’s needs. Globally, women’s grassroots leadership is increasingly being recognized as a critical indicator of gendered governance, moving beyond the previous focus on their numerical representation in national legislatures alone. However, local women leaders’ actual and potential contributions, particularly in crisis response and their central role in community resilience, remain untapped assets in risk reduction and recovery strategies.

Learning from the voices of Elected Women Representatives

Centre for Catalyzing Change’s (C3) Sakshamaa Initiative embarked on a cross-sectional mixed-methods research to identify the role and impact of local women political leaders in rural Bihar, India. Bihar has 50% quotas for women in rural government. C3 implements a mentoring and capacity building program with these Elected Women Representatives (EWR) across 10 districts of the state. We interviewed 1338 EWRs to explore how their participation and leadership in local governance has evolved through this crisis, using qualitative and quantitative research tools.

The majority (87%) of the EWRs were first time representatives (87%). Almost all were married (96%), with 34% married before the age of 18. More than one-third (37%) had only completed primary school, and 23% had received no formal education.  finished undergraduate studies. Most were Hindu (90%), and of Other Backward Castes (63%) and Scheduled Castes (24%). Most EWRs (79%) are not engaged in paid work outside of their responsibilities as Elected Representatives.

How has the role and recognition of Elected Women Representatives changed under the pandemic?

  1. Increased Workload to Meet Community Needs

Half (46%) of EWRs said that their workload increased significantly since the start of the pandemic and lockdown – signaling the key role EWRs played as first responders. These efforts included:

  • Identifying returning migrants and providing supports for them and their families.
  • Spreading awareness about the COVID-19 disease and associated precautions.
  • Arranging rations, isolation areas, or hospital beds for the COVID-19 patients
  • Providing urgent medical support for pregnant women.

The pandemic also changed the kind of work EWRs were involved in, signaling a shift in their priorities aligning with emerging community needs. Prior to the pandemic, social services (arranging pension, ration cards etc.), roads and other infrastructure, access to drinking water, sanitation, and childcare services (Anganwadi) were indicated as the top priorities for EWRs. During the pandemic, their efforts related to migrants/migration and ensuring food security gained prominence – reflecting their community demands and needs related to rapid and mismanaged return migration, rising hunger in the face of income loss, and supply chain restrictions. EWRs expect increased need in the areas of local education, health and nutrition services as part of rebuilding post-pandemic.

  1. Increased community respect and self-confidence as leaders

EWRs’ active involvement in COVID containment and relief measures revealed the complex nature of Bihar’s prevalent gender norms, especially in relation to EWRs’ leadership positioning. All EWR’s agreed that people’s attitude towards them has changed for the better post COVID-19 and they were now perceived as “a people’s leader” who could be approached to address concerns. Statistical testing found that older relative to younger EWRs were more likely to report that under they pandemic they have greater potential as a leaders or in a better leadership role and are more valued as a leader by the community. As 23% of EWRs are aged 18-34 years, this is a concern, and it may be related to more split family and domestic responsibilities and expectations for these younger EWRs.

Many EWRs also mentioned their confidence and eagerness to compete in elections again. However, few felt that they had any actual power to affect change easily- only 23% believed that they could easily change things in their constituencies. This represents an interesting dichotomy, where women leaders are feeling more valued by their constituents, and more self-confident, but at the same time finding it difficult to navigate existing local governance systems.

  1. Increased decision-making and impact

EWRs have played a pivotal role in the COVID-19 response in Bihar from the start- spreading awareness about the COVID-19 disease and the precautions to prevent it, helping people to get subsidized ration, arranging health care for COVID-19 and other health issues, including vital maternal and reproductive health care. Their efforts not only offer valuable evidence of the centrality of local government in crisis situations, they demonstrate the important role EWRs play in times of community health and economic crises. While some have referred to these women political leaders as “Proxy Representatives,” negating the leadership and contributions of EWRs, their impacts during this pandemic, from social to survival supports, have been too visible to be denied.

Greater support for EWRs is needed

While EWRs have been vitally important across a number of areas for rural communities contending with the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown periods, inadequate resources impede their capacities and impact. They are expected to supervise, monitor, and ensure effective implementation of various development initiatives through smartphones, but smartphones are not always available to them. Only 63% EWR participants owned a phone and among them, only 24% had a smartphone. EWRs often relied on other family members, especially sons and husbands, for smartphone access, document/file maintenance, financial processes, and transport. Two in five EWRs (42%) said they receive such support in all work matters. Our EWRs need resources, tools and access to information to continue their important work. Prioritizing their education, financial literacy, and digital access are crucial to sustain their confidence and capacities. Gender equality and empowerment for communities cannot occur if we do not invest in the development of our women leaders, and in their absence, neither pandemic management nor post-pandemic rebuilding will be possible.

The Principal Investigators for this study are Shiney Chakraborty, PhD (Economist based in New Delhi) and Anamika Priyadarshini, PhD (Lead Research – Sakshamaa, Centre for Catalyzing Change). 

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