Harmful practices, such as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and child marriage are violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms.

What are harmful practices?

‘Harmful practices’ is a term used by the United Nations to categorize forms of violence or ritual discrimination, primarily committed against girls and women, that have become culturally normalized. They encompass a range of abuse which results in economic and social coercion, physical and psychological damage, disability and even death.

Harmful practices are violations of human rights and fundamental freedom and they include:

  • emale genital mutilation
  • child, early and forced marriage
  • bride kidnapping
  • female infanticide
  • breast ironing
  • forced feeding
  • stoning
  • polygamy
  • virginity testing

Some people defend harmful practices by saying that they are based on culture, religion, tradition. However, we believe the right to culture and freedom of religion can not limit the fundamental right to equality and non-discrimination.

Within our work to end harmful practices, we currently focus on:

We have also previously focused on bride kidnapping, marriage by abduction or marriage by capture, which is where a man abducts the woman or girl he wishes to marry.

Harmful practices are a global issue

Harmful practices such as child marriage and FGM happen across cultures, religions, and countries.

Each year, at least 12 million girls are married before the age of 18; that is 23 girls every minute, nearly 1 every 2 seconds. More than 650 million women, and over 150 million men, already suffer the consequences of child marriage. If current trends continue, 150 million more girls will be married in childhood by 2030, with devastating consequences for the global community.

More than 200 million women and girls alive today are known to be living with the consequences of FGM, and a further 3 million are at risk of undergoing FGM every year. In 2015 it was estimated that if current trends continued, 68 million girls are at risk of undergoing FGM between 2015-2030. Even these alarming figures are a gross underestimation of the problem. This data only refers to the 31 countries where FGM data is officially collected, the actual number is likely to be much higher since FGM is known to occur in many other countries where prevalence data is not available.

Why is this a feminist issue?

These practices represent a denial of the dignity and integrity of the individual and a violation of human rights. They often stem from patriarchal structures and attitudes and are rooted in gender inequality and women’s and girls’ subordinate place in society.
The practices often seek to coercively control women and girls and their sexuality and are at times interconnected with each other, as well as with other forms of violence, discrimination, and subordination of women and girls.
In some cultures, female genital mutilation and child marriage are linked, with FGM happening in preparation for a girl being married, but this isn’t always the case.

Ending harmful practices by 2030: why does the law matter?

UN Sustainable Development Goal 5.3 requires all countries to eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation by 2030.

These practices are different from one community to the next. In order to be effective, solutions must take into account local contexts.
When it comes to grappling with harmful practices that are held as part of a community’s traditions, the law is an essential part of a broader effort that encompasses many other sectors, including civil society, local leaders, doctors, and other medical personnel, education, and media.

The law provides a deterrent to would-be offenders as well as protection for women and girls who are vulnerable to harmful practices and, if need be, with a recourse to secure justice.

The law can be an accelerator for social change but to be an effective tool for prevention it must be used: to raise awareness, to facilitate dialogue, and to hold duty bearers to account. Sustainable change requires a multi-sectoral approach where many parts and government and of society come together to achieve it.

How is Equality Now working to end harmful practices?

We are working toward a world where women and girls are protected from harmful practices by the law and are surrounded by social attitudes and behaviors that enforce women’s equality.

We are also working to ensure that women and girls have access to justice when their rights are violated.

We push for states to be accountable in line with their international obligations, and ensure they enact and effectively implement laws that prohibit harmful practices.


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