Throughout this knowledge module, reference to certain provisions or sections of a piece of legislation, part of a legal judgment, or aspect of a practice does not imply that the legislation, judgment, or practice is considered in its entirety to be a good example or a  promising practice.

Some of the laws cited herein may contain provisions which authorize the death penalty. In light of the United Nations General Assembly resolutions 62/149, 63/16862/14963/16865/206, and 67/176: calling for a moratorium on and ultimate abolition of capital punishment, the death penalty should not be included in sentencing provisions for crimes of violence against women and girls.

Discrimination and violence against women and girls has often been justified by invoking social or religious customs, values and practices. Such discriminatory social values often give rise to socially constructed forms of violence against women, known as “harmful practices,” that are accepted and justified as culture or tradition.

Harmful practices resulting in pain, suffering and humiliation for girls and young women originate from the deeply entrenched discriminatory views and beliefs about the role and position of females in many societies and communities. The differentiation in roles and expectations between boys and girls relegating girls to an inferior position starts from birth and continues throughout their whole life. Harmful traditional practices help replicate and perpetuate the subordinate position of women. The issue of harmful practices therefore cannot be addressed without tackling gender discrimination which is at the root of such practices. 

(See: No More Excuses! Ending all Harmful Traditional Practices against Girls and Young Women, 2007 (hereinafter “No More Excuses”)) 

Harmful practices include a wide range of practices which vary from culture to culture and country to country and are constantly changing due to modernization, globalization and migration. For this reason, there is no complete list of harmful practices. Some, such as female genital mutilation, forced and child marriage, maltreatment of widows, so-called honour crimes and dowry-related violence are discussed in separate sections in this Legislative Knowledge Module. Other forms of harmful practices include son preference resulting in female infanticide or pre-natal sex selection, breast ironing, witch hunts, acid attacks, inciting women to commit suicide, dedication of young girls to temples, restrictions on a second daughter’s right to marry, dietary restrictions for pregnant women, force feeding and nutritional taboos, and marriage to a deceased husband’s brother, among others. (See: United Nations, Good Practices in Legislation on “Harmful Practices” Against Women, Report of Expert Group Meeting, 26-29 May 2009 Supplement to the Handbook for Legislation on Violence against Women. (Hereinafter Good Practices on Harmful Practices Expert Group Report), Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Division for the Advancement of Women, now part of UN Women.

Harmful practices are interconnected with one another and with other forms of violence and discrimination against women. Disconnecting the problem of harmful practices from gender inequality, simply shifts problems to other areas and fails to address the root cause of such practices. For example, female infanticide and sex-selective abortions result in a vast gender imbalance in a society which, in turn, can cause an increase in bride, kidnapping, forced marriage, rape and trafficking. Victims of forced marriage are often raped to keep them from being able to leave their kidnappers. In some countries, rape victims are accused of having engaged in pre-marital or extra-marital “sexual relations” and are further subjected to “honour crimes” and/or forced to marry the perpetrator of the rape in order to restore their family’s damaged “honour.” Maltreatment of widows and witch hunting are both related to discrimination against women regarding property and inheritance rights. Female genital mutilation is often a requirement for marriage and sometimes seen as a way to control women’s sexuality. Ironically, breast ironing is explained as an effort to preserve a girl’s virginity and protect her from rape and sexual harassment by warding off signs of puberty. All of these harmful practices, along with others, are indicative of “discrimination against women and are symptomatic of the devalued status of women in society.” (See: Good Practices on Harmful Practices Expert Group Report, p.8)

“What we have learned is that violence against women is a universal problem and that one type of violence is intimately linked to another as the root causes are the same: they are all very much related to gender inequality.” Ertuk, Yakin, Human Rights Council Panel discussion on female foeticide and girl infanticide.


All Governments are obligated under international law to undertake action to end harmful practices. This includes enacting comprehensive legislation, collecting disaggregated data regarding the prevalence and forms of harmful practices practiced in their respective countries, undertaking awareness raising and capacity-building activities, including to ensure that lawyers, law enforcement officials, health professionals and other relevant service providers are sensitized to the causes and consequences of harmful practices and on how to identify and effectively respond to victims/survivors. Governments also have an obligation to tackle societal attitudes which perpetuate harmful practices, as well as to address their root causes, including through legislation which addresses gender discrimination in all its forms. Equality must take precedence over the interests of those wishing to maintain a status quo that discriminates against women. 

In order to eliminate harmful practices, government action and legislation must take multiple forms and engage various groups, including educational, legal, health services, cultural and religious leaders to effect true change and end harmful practices. In this asset, we will focus upon the valuable role that legal reform can play in working to end harmful practices. 

While use of legal measures needs to be carefully considered and used in conjunction with other education efforts, laws can be a useful tool for change, giving NGOs and individuals greater leverage in persuading communities to abandon the practice.  (Female Genital Mutilation: A Guide to Laws and Policies Worldwide, p.13)