The United States has plummeted to 28th place on an annual ranking of the world's most equal countries for men and women, falling behind Rwanda, an East African country ravaged by genocide in 1994.
Rwandan women beat American women in both labor force participation and government representation, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report. Eighty-eight percent of women in Rwanda have jobs, compared to 66 percent of women in the U.S. A whopping 64 percent of the African nation’s politicians are women, compared to our 19 percent.
It's important to note that Rwanda, which placed sixth on the list, also boasts more gender equality than France (15th), Spain (25th), Germany (11th), Switzerland (8th) and Denmark (14th). Each country was graded on labor participation, health, political empowerment and educational attainment.
So, how did Rwanda blaze past much of the Western world in women’s economic and political opportunity? The answer lies in recent history.
The Rwandan genocide, a mass slaughter of the Tutsi minority population, tore apart families and killed roughly 800,000 adults and children in 100 days. Hutu extremists destroyed communities, raping an estimated 500,000 women.
After the tragedy ended in July 1994, women banded together and demanded power. They changed the country’s constitution to require that women hold at least 30 percent of top political roles. They called for true equality in marriage. They took over farms. They delayed starting families to work and earn more.
In a story for The Guardian last year, reporter Alexandra Topping, who visited Kigali, the country’s capital, wrote: “A swath of laws have given women the right to inherit land, share the assets of a marriage and obtain credit. As many girls as boys receive primary and secondary education, maternal mortality is lower and the birth rate is falling.”
Things, of course, aren’t perfect. Topping notes that domestic violence still plagues households, despite public campaigns to stop it. And average lifespans in Rwanda remain low, the WEF report highlighted: 57 years old for women and 55 for men.
The U.S., meanwhile, plunged eight slots on the gender equality ranking this year, slipping out of the report’s top 20. The wage gap and fewer women in senior government positions appear to have propelled the drop.
Beyond discrimination, economists say both issues are exacerbated by America's lack of family-friendly policies, the soaring cost of child care and the cultural expectation that women, even sole breadwinners, should shoulder the bulk of domestic responsibilities.
A recent Pew survey of more than 1,800 U.S. parents found both men and women have trouble balancing job responsibilities with family life. Mothers, however, reported tackling more chores than fathers, regardless of who earned more money: Sixty-four percent of female respondents said the majority of household work fell to them.
American women also experienced an uneven recovery since the last economic downtown, which dragged down their labor force participation.
About 8.7 million jobs disappeared during the last recession. American men have encountered less trouble getting back to work, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Between February 2010 and June 2014, they gained 5.5 million jobs, while women gained 3.6 million.