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International policy instruments

Several international policy documents have also called upon States to eliminate harmful practices, including through the enactment of appropriate legislation. 

(a) Physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring in the family, including battering, sexual abuse of female children in the household, dowry-related violence, marital rape, female genital mutilation and other traditional practices harmful to women, non-spousal violence and violence related to exploitation; . . .

Article 4 of the Declaration provides that States should:

. . . [C]ondemn violence against women and should not invoke any custom, tradition or religious consideration to avoid their obligations with respect to its elimination.

(43) Violence against women and girl children is a global phenomenon which cuts across geographical, cultural and political boundaries and varies only in its manifestations and severity. Gender violence has existed from time immemorial and continues up to the present day. It takes covert and overt forms including physical and mental abuse. Violence against women, including female genital mutilation, wife-burning, dowry-related violence, rape, incest, wife battering, female foeticide and female infanticide, trafficking and prostitution, is a human rights violation and not only a moral issue. It has serious negative implications on the economic and social development of women and society, and is an expression of the societal gender subordination of women.

The Plan of Action calls on governments to: 

. . . openly condemn all forms of violence against women and children, in particular girls, and commit themselves to confronting and eliminating such violence.

The Plan of Action sets forth specific elements of a National Action Plan to eliminate harmful traditional practices affecting the health of women and children. 

At an international level, the Plan of Action calls on the Commission on Human Rights and the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities to keep the issue of harmful practices “under constant review.”  Para. 64. The Plan of Action also calls on the Commission on the Status of Women and other international organizations to do the following:
 

(65) The Commission should give more attention to the question of harmful traditional practices.

(66) All the organs of the United Nations working for the protection and the promotion of human rights, and in particular the mechanisms established by the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Covenants on Human Rights and the Convention against Torture, should include in their agenda the question of all harmful traditional practices which jeopardize the health of women and girls and discriminate against them.

(67) Intergovernmental organizations and specialized agencies and bodies of the United Nations system, such as the United Nations Children's Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, the United Nations Population Fund, the United Nations Development Fund for Women, the International Labour Organisation, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and the World Health Organization, should integrate in their activities the issue of confronting harmful traditional practices and elaborate programmes to cope with this problem.

  • The Plan of Action also provides action recommendations for specific types of harmful practices including son preference, early marriage, child delivery practices, and violence against women and girl children. These recommendations are included throughout this asset under relevant sections. 

The Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development speaks out against son preferences, female genital mutilation, infanticide, prenatal sex selection and trafficking, among other harmful practices:

The objectives are to eliminate all forms of discrimination against the girl child, to eliminate the root causes of son preference, to increase public awareness of the value of the girl child and to strengthen her self-esteem. To these ends, leaders at all levels of society should speak out and act forcefully against gender discrimination within the family based on preference for sons. There should be special education and public information efforts to promote equal treatment of girls and boys with respect to nutrition, health care, education and social, economic and political activity, as well as equitable inheritance. Governments should develop an integrated approach to the special health, education and social needs of girls and young women, and should strictly enforce laws to ensure that marriage is entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses. Governments are urged to prohibit female genital mutilation and to prevent infanticide, prenatal sex selection, trafficking of girl children and use of girls in prostitution and pornography.  Chapter IV, B. 

[o]ften subjected to various forms of … violence and harmful practices such as female infanticide and prenatal sex selection, incest, female genital mutilation and early marriage, including child marriage.  Para. 39. 

The Platform required that: “Any harmful aspect of certain traditional, customary or modern practices that violates the rights of women should be prohibited and eliminated.” Para. 224.

  • United Nations General Assembly Resolution 61/143 (2007) reminded states that they must not use customs, traditions, or religious beliefs as excuses for avoiding their obligation to eliminate violence against women and girls. It urged states to organize a systematic and comprehensive approach to the problem, including: reviewing laws and regulations affecting violence against women and girls; preparing amendments or revisions as necessary; ending impunity for the violence by prosecuting perpetrators; providing training for law enforcement and the judiciary; and allocating resources for these efforts. It noted that girls and women are particularly at risk in conflict or post-conflict situations. States were urged to collect and analyze data on violence against women and girls, and the Secretary-General was requested to establish a coordinated database which would contain information provided by states on all aspects of policies, laws, and programs on violence against women and girls.
  • The three most recent General Assembly Resolutions on Intensification of Efforts to Eliminate All Forms of Violence Against Women call on Member States to “review and, where appropriate, revise, amend or abolish all laws, regulations, policies, practices and customs that discriminate against women or have a discriminatory impact on women, and ensure that provisions of multiple legal systems, where they exist, comply with international human rights obligations, commitments and principles.” (See: General Assembly Resolutions (30 January 2007) A/RES/61/143, (30 January 2009) A/RES/63/155, and (11 February 2010) A/RES/64/137

Develop and implement national legislation and policies prohibiting harmful customary or traditional practices that are violations of women’s and girls’ human rights and obstacles to the full enjoyment by women and girls of their human rights and fundamental freedoms; . . .[p]rosecute the perpetrators of practices that are harmful to the health of women and girls; [and] [e]radicate customary or traditional practices, particularly female genital mutilation, that are harmful to, or discriminatory against, women and that are violations of women’s human rights and fundamental freedoms, through the design and implementation of awareness-raising programmes, education and training; ...

At its 51st session of the Commission on the Status of Women also focused on the elimination of all forms of discrimination and violence against girls.  The Commission’s report on that session reaffirms the responsibility of States to:

Develop and implement national legislation and policies prohibiting harmful customary or traditional practices, particularly female genital mutilation, that are violations of and obstacles to the full enjoyment by women of their human rights and fundamental freedoms, and prosecute the perpetrators of such practices that are harmful to the health of women and girls . . .

The Commission has also adopted resolutions calling on States to take action to end specific harmful practices, including female genital mutilation (Resolutions 51/2 and 52/2) and forced marriage (Resolution 51/3).