Although there is sometimes disagreement as to what the term covers, the UN Study on Violence Against Children (2006) lists harmful traditional practices(HTPs) as follows:
genital cutting (including female genital mutilation - cutting of a girls’ sexual parts - and male circumcision);
child sexual abuse, including girls married very young or being forced to marry;
honour killings, where men kill girls in the name of family ’honour’, for example for having sex outside marriage, or refusing an arranged marriage.
Article 24(3) of the Convention on the Rights of the Child requires State Parties to “take all effective and appropriate measures with a view to abolishing traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children."
Article 21 of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child obliges State Parties to:
"...take all appropriate measures to eliminate harmful social and cultural practices affecting the welfare, dignity, normal growth and development of the child and in particular:
(a) those customs and practices prejudicial to the health or life of the child; and
(b) those customs and practices discriminatory to the child on the grounds of sex or other status. Child marriage and the betrothal of girls and boys shall be prohibited and effective action, including legislation, shall be taken to specify the minimum age of marriage to be 18 years and make registration of all marriages in an official registry compulsory."
Article 5 of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (the Maputo Protocol), adopted in 2003, requires States to “prohibit and condemn all forms of harmful practices which negatively affect the human rights of women and which are contrary to recognised international standards.”
The UN study on Violence Against Children (2006) emphasises that the nature of HTPs varies. In Ethiopia, a 1998 survey by the National Committee on Harmful Traditional Practices found that uvulectomy (removal of flesh from the soft palate at the back of the mouth) is carried out on 84 per cent of children, and milk teeth extraction on 89 per cent. “These operations may be performed with unsterilised instruments, leading to potential infection,” says the Study.
The Study further notes that in West African countries including Mauritania, Niger and northern Mali, some parents are known to force-feed their 5–10-year-old daughters to promote their physical development, make them as plump as mature women, and “therefore pleasing to men.” The Study argues that: “This may have tragic consequences, including rejection by husbands who find their wives have not menstruated and cannot produce children, as well as obesity which is associated with later serious health problems: cardiovascular disease, hypertension and diabetes”.
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)
According to a World Health Organisation (WHO) estimate, between 100 and 140 million girls and women in the world have undergone some form of FGM. Girls from very young ages up to their mid or late teens undergo this form of genital excision, normally including the clitoris, as a precursor to marriage. The UN Study explains that: “FGM is seen as a protection of virginity, a beautification process, and in a number of cultures is regarded as an essential precondition of marriage”.
FGM is especially common in the countries in the Horn of Africa (Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti), followed by neighbouring Egypt and Sudan, East and West Africa, with some cases also occurring in other parts of the Middle East and in Asia. It is often practised by certain peoples within countries, for example in Nigeria the prevalence reaches almost 60 per cent of girls in the southern provinces, but only two per cent in the north.
Some feminists have argued that the focus on ‘non-Western’ harmful traditional practices neglects the fact that damaging cultural practices to which women are subjugated also occur in so-called developed countries.
For more information about harmful traditional practices, read this fact sheet from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
What can be done?
First, laws should be enacted which prohibit harmful traditional practices. However, some authors have questioned the effectiveness of legalistic, human rights approaches, which do not always lead to a good understanding of the practices, including why they take place in the first place. In its General Comment number 4 on Adolescent Health, the Committee on the Rights of the Child states that:
"States Parties should take all effective measures to eliminate all acts and activities which threaten the right to life of adolescents, including honour killings. The Committee strongly urges States Parties to develop and implement awareness-raising campaigns, education programmes and legislation aimed at changing prevailing attitudes, and address gender roles and stereotypes that contribute to harmful traditional practices. Further, States Parties should facilitate the establishment of multidisciplinary information and advice centres regarding the harmful aspects of some traditional practices, including early marriage and female genital mutilation."