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How the US State Department Downplays Reporting on Women

New Study Points to Significant Cuts in Annual Reporting on Human Rights

Manju M., 16, Tilmaya M., 18, and Sangeeta M., 19, wait with their children outside of a doctor’s office in Chitwan, Nepal. The parents of Manju M. arranged her marriage to a 19-year-old man when she was 15. Tilmaya M. eloped and married a 20-year-old man at the age of 15. Sangeeta M. had an arranged marriage with a 20-year-old man at the age of 17. April 12, 2016. © 2016 Smita Sharma for Human Rights Watch

Earlier this year, the US State Department issued its annual human rights report for 2017, with some glaring omissions. The section that typically provides detailed analysis of violence against women in various countries was conspicuously truncated. References to government action or inaction related to gender-based violence disappeared.

While these omissions were widely criticized by human rights organizations, the State Department said the changes were merely meant to streamline the country chapters, which have become long and unwieldy.

But a new study by Oxfam casts doubt on that explanation. The study found that while reporting on women’s rights issues, as measured by usage of “women”, “woman” and “female”, fell by 32 percent, the overall heft of the chapters did not change. The 2017 report is not statistically significantly shorter than the 2016 counterpart, but countries of origin of asylum seekers to the US and those with greater gender inequality have both seen disproportionately deeper cuts in reporting on women rights issues.

The most stunning omission from the 2017 report was the complete excising of reporting on women’s and girl’s reproductive health care. States have an obligation to address a slew of critical issues for women, including access to contraception, preventable maternal death, and the provision of comprehensive services after sexual violence. Before 2017, the State Department reports provided reporting on many of these issues. But the 2017 report simply replaced most of these sections in country reports with a blanket statement:

“Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion, involuntary sterilization, or other coercive population control methods. Estimates on maternal mortality and contraceptive prevalence are available at:” 

The link didn’t even lead to any reporting on contraceptive prevalence and the data on maternal health was a few years old.

Women’s rights are key issues. The Trump administration’s targeted deletions and radical editing of reporting on them jeopardizes the work of activists around world working to raise the profile of abuses against women and girls. There is time now as the 2018 report is being prepared to course correct and report fully on the rights of women and girls – including violence they face and their access to healthcare.   

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