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Traditional practices affecting the health of women and the girl-child

The problem of traditional practices dangerous to the health of women and the girl-child has been reviewed by several United Nations world conferences. The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action adopted at the World Conference on Human Rights in 1993 expanded the scope of the international programme on human rights, emphasizing that “gender-based violence and all forms of sexual harassment and exploitation, including those resulting from cultural prejudice and international trafficking, are incompatible with the dignity and worth of the human person and must be eliminated”. The Conference urged Governments to take steps to combat harmful traditional or customary practices, including female infanticide.

Special Rapporteur on Harmful Traditional Practices

“The importance attached to certain traditional practices in some communities must be taken into account. I firmly and unequivocally condemn all practices that violate individuals' physical integrity. Nevertheless, punishments and sentences based on value judgements could sometimes be counter-productive and encourage communities to close ranks and cling to practices which, although harmful and for the most part clandestine, are nonetheless the only means they have of expressing their cultural identity. Such practices should not be condemned in the courts except as a last resort when education, information and the proposal of alternative rites that do not injure women and girls have not been successful. Training, information and education, especially in countries with high levels of immigration and appropriate physical and financial means, are the best means of combating harmful traditional practices effectively and freeing women and girls from obscurantism and violence.”

“It is essential to act with tact and patience, bringing the communities concerned to understand that their cultural values are not to be confused with cultural practices, and that the practices can be changed without adversely affecting the values as such.”

The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action adopted at the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995 deal with harmful traditional practices under a number of the key areas. Consistent with the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women adopted by the General Assembly in 1993, they define violence against women as encompassing dowry-related violence, female genital mutilation and other traditional practices harmful to women, female infanticide and prenatal sex selection. They emphasize the harmful effects of certain traditional and customary practices affecting women and the girl-child, and call on governments to take legislative steps to eliminate these practices and acts of violence against women.

The Platform for Action states that the reasons why men outnumber women in certain parts of the world include harmful attitudes and practices such as female genital mutilation, son preference (which results in female infanticide and prenatal sex selection), early marriage, including child marriage, “honour killings” and discrimination against girls in food allocation. The Platform suggests concrete steps for governments to eradicate cultural attitudes and practices that are harmful to girls.

The Programme of Action adopted at the 1994 Cairo International Conference on Population and Development called on governments to take action to stamp out female sexual mutilation and protect women and the girl-child against such unnecessary and dangerous practices.