A woman pretends to be gagged while taking part in a protest during International Women's Day in Mexico City in this March 8, 2011 file photo. A Thomson Reuters Foundation survey, polling 370 gender specialists, found Canada to be the best place to be a woman amongst G20 nations, excluding the European Union economic grouping. Saudi Arabia was the second worst, after India. The writing on the woman's chest reads, "Neither a whore, nor crazy, nor a saint, just a woman." REUTERS/Jorge Dan Lopez/Files (MEXICO - Tags: SOCIETY)

On one side of the border, a woman can see a doctor for free and is guaranteed paid maternity leave. On the other, most women do not qualify for free health care and one in five under 65 does not have medical insurance.

These differences and others make Canada the best country among the world’s wealthiest nations to be a woman and keep the US out of the top five, according to a poll of experts released last week by legal news service TrustLaw.

The US ranked sixth among the 19 countries in the Group of 20 (G20) economies, excluding the EU economic grouping, in the global survey of 370 recognised gender specialists.

Germany, Britain, Australia and France followed Canada in that order, while India, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia polled the worst.

Despite similarities between Canada and the US in education and economic opportunity, the countries were different in the area of gender equality, the experts said.

Canada’s constitution promoted and safeguarded women’s rights while a lack of consensus over reproductive rights in particular eroded them in the US, experts said.

“Canada leads the pack with its promotion of women’s access and opportunities across various sectors of society, including education, economic participation and health care,” said Sarah Degnan Kambou, president of the International Centre for Research on Women in Washington, which took part in the survey.

The poll showed how the lack of universal health care and the struggle over abortion rights in the US – important issues before the November presidential election – were key to perceptions of women’s freedoms in the country, according to the experts polled.

Respondents came from 63 countries on five continents and included aid professionals, academics, health workers, policymakers, journalists and development specialists with experience in gender issues. Representatives of faith-based organisations were also surveyed.

While a pregnant woman in Canada is guaranteed 15 weeks of paid maternity leave, she receives no federally guaranteed time off with pay in the US.

If the expectant mother is one of the 16 percent of American women under 65 with no health insurance – according to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – she may have to forgo adequate pre-natal and post-natal care because she can’t afford it.

Canada also ranks better than the US on maternal mortality, reporting 12 maternal deaths per 100 000 live births in 2008, half the number recorded in the US, according to the UN.

While women’s political representation in Canada lags behind some G20 countries, it fares better than in the US.

Nearly a quarter of seats in Canada’s lower house of parliament are held by women, compared with 17 percent in the US, according to data from the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

“Our political participation levels, particularly in Congress, are embarrassingly low as compared to other countries in the G20, such as SA, Germany and Argentina,” said Kambou. In SA, women hold 42 percent of seats in Parliament’s lower house.

Canada was one of the first countries to sign and ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, often referred to as the international bill of rights for women.

The US is the only democracy and the only G20 country that has yet to ratify convention, primarily due to concerns of religious and social conservatives that it will undermine what they call “traditional family values”.

Neither Canada nor the US has managed to resolve the gender pay gap.

The status of reproductive rights – considered a basic human right by many of the experts polled – continues to be a big issue for women in the US, survey respondents said.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, which promotes sexual and reproductive rights, US legislators enacted 92 provisions that restricted access to abortion in 24 states last year.

So far this year, nine provisions that restrict access to abortion have been enacted at state level.

Women’s control over reproductive health was one of the issues experts were asked to consider when ranking the G20 countries as part of a broad health category that also included maternal mortality, access to health care, HIV/Aids and access to adequate nutrition.

About a third of US women said they believe there is a broad effort to curtail access to choices and services such as contraception, family planning and abortion, a recent survey by the non-profit Kaiser Family Foundation found.

“It’s not surprising the US did not make the top five ‘best’ countries, given the serious violations of women’s rights that continue to occur,” said Yasmeen Hassan, global director of Equality Now.

Aside from quality of health, the TrustLaw survey asked respondents to rank G20 countries in terms of the overall best and worst places for women and in the categories of freedom from violence, participation in politics, workplace opportunities, access to resources such as education and property rights and freedom from trafficking and slavery. – Reuters