Women's Empowerment and Leadership Development for Democratisation

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UN human rights experts set out countries’ obligations to tackle harmful practices such as FGM and forced marriage

GENEVA (5 November 2014) – For the first time, two UN human rights expert committees have joined forces to issue a comprehensive interpretation of the obligations of  States to prevent and eliminate harmful practices inflicted on women and girls, such as female genital mutilation, crimes committed in the name of so-called honour, forced and child marriage, and polygamy. 

“Harmful practices are frequently justified by invoking social or religious customs and values often embedded in patriarchal cultures and traditions. They are deeply rooted in attitudes that regard women and girls as inferior to men and boys. They are also often used as a means of ‘protecting’ the honour of women, children and their families and as a way of controlling women’s choices and expressions, in particular their sexuality,” said Violeta Neubauer from the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

“Harmful practices are found across the world. They have become increasingly common in some countries where they did not used to exist, mainly as a result of migration, while in some regions, especially those affected by conflict, they had declined but are now re-emerging,” said Hiranthi Wijemanne from the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC). 

The Committees’ Joint General Recommendation/General Comment* – released today – also highlights other harmful practices such as virginity testing, binding, widowhood practices, infanticide, and body modifications including fattening, neck elongation and breast ironing.  The Committees also pay attention to practices such as women and girls undergoing plastic surgery to conform to social norms of beauty. 

“It is time to examine harmful practices from a human rights perspective. Children have a right to be protected from practices that have absolutely no health or medical benefits but which can have long-term negative effects on their physical or mental well-being,” said Ms. Wijemanne. 

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child both contain provisions under which harmful practices constitute human rights violations and obliging States to take steps to prevent and eliminate them.

“Prevention is vital, and that requires the design of measures aimed at changing existing social norms and patriarchal cultures. Very often, the parents who decide to marry their girl-child or agree to FGM being performed on her do so in the belief that they are doing what is best for their daughter in a given community,” said Ms. Neubauer. “We also need to recognise that boys also suffer from harmful practices and that men and boys have a key role in eliminating them,” Ms. Wijemanne said.

The Committees’ recommendations to States on ensuring their full compliance with their legal obligations detail the criteria for determining the causes and manifestations of harmful practices. They call for a holistic approach, backed by appropriate legislation, political will and accountability, to tackling them.

Strategies should be coordinated at local, regional and national level and across sectors such as education, health, justice, social welfare, law enforcement, immigration and asylum. Communities, including traditional and religious authorities, should be involved in challenging and changing attitudes that underlie and justify harmful practices.

The joint General Recommendation/General Comment reflects the common effort to ensure respect for the rights of women and children, and has been adopted as CEDAW marks its 35th anniversary and CRC its 25th anniversary.


*Full text of the CEDAW General Recommendation/CRC General Comment: http://goo.gl/YGNp6I

Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women:  http://www.ohchr.org/en/hrbodies/cedaw/pages/cedawindex.aspx
Committee on the Rights of the Child: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/CRC/Pages/CRCIndex.aspx

To arrange an interview with a Committee member, please contact:
CEDAW: Jakob Schneider +41 (0) 22 917 9301 / jschneider@ohchr.org
CRC: Allegra Franchetti +41 (0) 22 917 9340 or Audrey Rinaldi +41 (0) 22 917 9225 / arinaldi@ohchr.org

For more information and other media requests, please contact:
Liz Throssell  +41 (0) 22 917 9466/ ethrossell@ohchr.org

United Nations OHCHR
Published Date: 
Culturally Justified Violence Against Women