UN Poverty Report Hits the Mark on the USA but Almost Misses the Boat on Sexual and Reproductive Rights

12 July, 2018


Written by Cynthia Rothschild, a feminist activist and author who focuses on human rights, sexuality, gender and UN advocacy. She’s based in New York.

Photo credit: Poor People’s Campaign

The United Nations’ leading expert on poverty recently issued a fiery report condemning poverty in the USA and the calculated decisions and policies that lead to it.  Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty, officially presented his annual report to the UN Human Rights Council in its just-concluded June 2018 session.  Probably not coincidentally, just days earlier, the US government, amidst theatrics and hyperbole, announced that it was resigning from that same Council.


The UN’s Human Rights Council is the main UN political body for human rights; it is the space where governments discuss critical issues such as use of chemical weapons in Syria, the targeting of Rohingya refugees in Myanmar, attacks on Palestinian protestors in Gaza, and the pandemic of violence against women around the world. Governments at the Council hold one another accountable for violations.  And in a best-case scenario, they lay groundwork for new understandings of the vast and fluid universe of human rights.

For instance, consider that 20 years ago, rights of Indigenous Peoples and rights to water or food were not yet woven into the fabric of how the global mainstream understood human rights.  Nor were rights related to sexual orientation, gender identity / gender expression or those related to maternal mortality. Now in large part they are, because social movements demanded exactly that, because the human rights systems (such as UN treaty bodies) began to recognize those issues, and also because at least some governments began to recognize — rather than deny — the very real violence and discrimination that are also woven through these sexual and reproductive rights and health (SRHR) issues, particularly for those who are economically disenfranchised.

Never one to mince words, the Special Rapporteur lays out a devastating picture of poverty in the United States. In addition to clearly spelling out the links between human rights violations and severe economic marginalization, he boldly implicates the current administration in creating and allowing conditions that maintain a US underclass.

“…The persistence of extreme poverty is a political choice made by those in power.”

“There is … a dramatic contrast between the immense wealth of the few and the squalor and deprivation in which vast numbers of Americans live.”  

The US fled the Human Rights Council at the very beginning of the June session, just before this report was presented to governments, activists and journalists for discussion.  According to the US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, the US left because the Council is a “cesspool of bias,” and she publicly referred to the report as “misleading” and “politically motivated.” While no direct cause and effect will likely be proven, the timing can’t help but lead to speculation about a “distraction strategy”.

This, of course, was the exact time children were being abducted and separated from their parents at the southern border of the US.  Between ongoing abject poverty and the detaining of immigrants in cages, along with all the other human rights crises created and imposed by the current US administration, it is no wonder the US has chosen to remove itself from the intergovernmental playing field of the Council.  Better to run off in bluster than endure the criticism of others on the world stage.

The Rapporteur’s report, which in many ways is excellent, does miss the opportunity, however, to more thoroughly integrate a strong feminist and women’s rights analysis through its arguments. It clearly names obstacles to accessing abortion, threats to women’s privacy and prevalence of maternal mortality as related to poverty. Yet, a more robust linking of sexual and reproductive health and rights, race, gender and socio-economic status would have been welcome.

The Special Rapporteur rightly notes racist stereotypes that permeate the dominant “caricatured narratives” about purported innate differences between the rich and the poor.  Considering the longstanding racist and sexist mythology of poor Black women “unable” or “unwilling” to limit their family sizes, and the US history of welfare policies that have required forced sterilization (generally of poor women of color), the report could have laid out an important bridge between past and present.

Under Trump, efforts by federal and state officials to eviscerate the Affordable Care Act (ACA, which provides health insurance to approximately 20 million people) and to privatize health care are well known. Less known, though, are the historic efforts that make it even harder for women – and poor women in particular – to access health services and to make autonomous decisions about their health, sexuality and reproduction.   

Other sexual and reproductive rights and health topics ought always to be part of an intersectional analysis of poverty. Consider, for instance the compounded effects in these examples:

Discrimination in provision of health services drives poor people in other marginalized groups (such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people, or those who are living with HIV/AIDS and sex workers) further underground. People won’t access services if they don’t feel safe and respected.

The same holds true for experiences in schools. For many young people, staying in school is hard enough. Poor kids who are also discriminated against because of race, gender or sexuality – or any number of other factors – have an added burden: if they cannot access and finish basic education, their economic opportunities remain limited.

A rich discussion of gender and poverty in the US must always also address conservative efforts to: deny pregnant women insurance coverage by classifying pregnancy as an uncoverable “pre-existing condition”; limit insurance coverage for contraception through “religious liberty” judicial strategies, which allow denial of coverage in certain circumstances; and deny comprehensive sexuality education. These, along with the examples cited above, paint a more complete picture of socio-economic hardship and SRHR.

Each of these examples sits at the nexus of sexism, racism and economic disenfranchisement and each limits poor women’s ability to enjoy all human rights, including those related to health, dignity and bodily autonomy.   Activists and policy makers must bring this analysis into any discussion of poverty and human rights in the US – in both the presence and the calculated absence of its government.


Please note that blog posts are not peer-reviewed and do not necessarily reflect the views of RHM as an organisation.