UN rights panels outline States’ obligation to prevent harmful practices on women, girls

Ruth Dureng (second left, with friends in Monrovia, Liberia) was abused at home and had to leave after refusing a forced marriage. Photo: UNICEF/Glenna Gordon

Ruth Dureng (second left, with friends in Monrovia, Liberia) was abused at home and had to leave after refusing a forced marriage. Photo: UNICEF/Glenna Gordon

New York, 5 November 2014 – For the first time, two United Nations human rights 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.

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) released today the Joint General Recommendation/General Comment, which also highlights other harmful practices such as virginity testing, binding, widowhood practices, infanticide, and body modifications including fattening, neck elongation and breast ironing.

“Harmful practices are frequently justified by invoking social or religious customs and values often embedded in patriarchal cultures and traditions” said Violeta Neubauer, from CEDAW, the UN expert body that monitors implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, known informally as the “CEDAW convention.”

“[These acts] 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,” Ms. Neubauer added.

The objective of the General Recommendation/General Comment is to clarify the obligations of States parties to CEDAW and to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) by providing authoritative guidance on legislative, policy and other appropriate measures that must be taken to ensure full compliance with their obligations under the two Conventions to eliminate harmful practices.

The Committees also pay attention to practices such as women and girls undergoing plastic surgery to conform to social norms of beauty.

“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.

“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 female genital mutilation 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 recognize that boys also suffer from harmful practices and 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 the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women marks its 35th anniversary and the Committee on the Rights of the Child and the relevant treaty mark their 25th anniversary.