Boxes of vote-by-mail ballot envelopes are shown at the King County election headquarters in Renton, Washington, October 23, 2020.  © 2020 AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

With all eyes seemingly on the US presidential election, it’s easy to miss some of the exciting progress made on gender equality at the state level.

Colorado voters had two big initiatives on their ballot, one to expand paid family and medical leave, and the other to severely restrict access to abortion. The lack of federal paid family and medical leave in the United States contributes to parents delaying babies' immunizations, postpartum depression and other health problems, and leads some parents to end breastfeeding early, while employer bias against working mothers can derail women’s careers. Colorado joined nine states and the District of Columbia that have filled this gap, by passing a state ballot measure to adopt a permanent paid family and medical leave insurance program. Likewise, Colorado voters rejected a harmful ballot initiative that would have reduced access to abortion services after 22 weeks of pregnancy and imposed criminal penalties on doctors.

Other good news came out of Washington state, where voters adopted a ballot initiative on mandatory sex education starting in kindergarten – a first in the United States. Under the new law, all the children in the state would receive comprehensive sexual health information that is medically and scientifically accurate. Recent Human Rights Watch research demonstrates that teaching sex education in schools helps young people make safer decisions to protect their health. In this research, focused on Alabama, Human Rights Watch found that school districts are left to decide whether and what to teach and how to fund it, which leaves students with unequal access to information. This can create lifelong disadvantages for some students, particularly those who are Black and live in poverty, and may contribute to racial disparities in health outcomes as they enter adulthood. States like Alabama—which has high rates of sexually transmitted infections and of cancers associated with HPV, including cervical cancer— should look to Washington for an example of how take steps to get life-saving health information to students that will serve them their whole lives.

These three ballot initiatives are a reminder of the importance of sub-national actions that can protect and promote human rights and play a key role in moving the needle towards gender equality.