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UN: Harmful Traditional Practices - statement by Rashida Manjoo, UNSRVAW

Publication Date: 
June 27, 2012

UN Human Rights Council 20


Harmful Traditional Practices Against Women & Girls Panel

Laws vs. Practice: Rhetoric vs. Reality


June 27, 20l2

12:00 - 2:00 p.m.


Palais des Nations – Room XXI - Geneva 


Statement by Rashida Manjoo

UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women


At the outset, I would like to thank the Women's UN Report Network and the Inter-African Committee for inviting me to address this panel on harmful traditional practices against women & girls.


Throughout the world, there are practices that are violent towards women and girls and harmful to their well-being overall. Young girls are circumcised, bound by severe dress codes, denied property rights or killed for the sake of honour in the family. Although these and other practices constitute a form of violence, they have often avoided national and international scrutiny because they are seen as traditional practices that deserve tolerance and respect. This highlights how the universality of human rights is often denied when it comes to the rights of women and girls, and how cultural relativism can be wrongly used to allow for inhumane and discriminatory practices against women.[1]


Although dominant culture-based discourses sometimes justify or explain the violations of women’s rights, the international normative framework on violence against women has recognized the primacy of women’s right to live a life free of gender-based violence over any cultural considerations.[2] The Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women is extremely clear. Article 5 states: “State Parties shall take all appropriate measures: (a) To modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women. Likewise, the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women also states clearly, in article 4, “States should condemn violence against women and should not invoke any custom, tradition or religious consideration to avoid their obligations with respect to its elimination”.


However, cultural discourses and justifications continue to be used to challenge the primacy of human rights and the validity of the principle of gender equality and women’s human rights in general. This has become evident in my country missions and thematic work, through which I have witnessed how harmful practices are still affecting women and girls globally. While specific manifestations of these practices differ from one region to region, the underlying inequality and discrimination that underpins such practices, remains universal.


During my recent mission to Somalia, for example, I was made aware of the widespread practice of female genital mutilation (FGM). Statistics indicate that as many as 98 per cent of women had undergone some form of FGM, with 77 per cent of them subjected to the most severe form. It is primarily girls aged between 4 and 11 who are subjected to this practice. It was also reported that young girls between the ages of 4 and 8 were subjected to “infibulations” to ensure their chastity until they were married. Some young girls die from the shock and pain of the mutilation, which is normally done without anaesthesia, as well as from infections and massive blood loss. My country mission report recalls that the religious defence/justification is not applicable as Islam does not require women to undergo FGM, and several Islamic countries have outlawed all forms of FGM.


As regards harmful practices related to marriage, in my visit to Zambia and Papua New Guinea, I noted that early marriages still persist particularly in rural areas, as parents perceive a girl child as a source of wealth. Similarly during my visit to the US in January 2011, I was informed of the practices of certain religious/spiritual communities to marry girls as young as 12 to their spiritual leaders, who enter into polygamous marriages. Furthermore, during my visit to Kyrgyzstan, I learnt about the practice of bride-kidnapping, by which a girl or a woman is kidnapped, and taken to the home of the intended groom, where his female relatives exercise different forms of physical and psychological coercion to get her to “agree” to the marriage. It was also reported that during this period, her abductor may rape her, often to shame her into agreeing to the marriage, rather than facing disgrace at home. Although some may perceive this practice as purely symbolic, the cultural dimension and the interpretations surrounding this phenomenon, have impeded efforts to recognize, combat and punish cases of bride-kidnapping in the country.


With regards to so called “honour” killings, my most recent thematic report highlights diverse forms of violence against women, including direct murder; stoning; women and young girls being forced to commit suicide after public denunciations of their behaviour; and women being disfigured by acid burns, leading to death. “Honour crimes” are also linked to other forms of family violence, and are usually committed by male family members as a means of controlling women‘s sexual choices and limiting their freedom of movement. Punishment usually has a collective dimension, with the family as a whole believing it to be injured by a woman‘s actual or perceived behaviour, and is often public in character. The visibility of the issue and the punishment also serves a social objective, namely, influencing the conduct of other women.


This is an issue I noted during my recent mission to Jordan, where violence against women is sometimes perpetrated by husbands, guardians and other male relatives, when women act in ways that are considered “dishonourable” in the eyes of society. In my recommendations to the Government I stressed the need to design and launch targeted awareness-raising campaigns to educate and change societal attitudes, particularly those that view women’s bodies as repositories of family honour, and which place women under extreme scrutiny by the family and society.


During my latest country mission to Papua New Guinea, I received alarming reports of violence perpetrated against persons accused of sorcery/witchcraft, with women being affected disproportionally, particularly widows or other women with no family to protect them. During my visit to the Highlands region, I witnessed the brutality of the assaults perpetrated against suspected sorcerers, which in many cases include torture, rape, mutilations and murder. According to many interviewees, sorcery accusations are commonly used to deprive women of their land and/or their property. Also any misfortune or death within the community can be used as an excuse to accuse such person of being a sorcerer. Factors at the community level which allow for impunity for perpetrators include: the unwillingness to intervene prior to, or during, such attacks; fear of reporting and/or providing information to the police; and the use of the one-talk (wantok) solidarity tradition, by which community members protect each other from “outsiders”.


Many of the practices described above, involve severe pain and suffering, and may be considered torture. Furthermore, practices such as those impacting property and marital rights, are inherently unequal, and blatantly challenge the international imperatives towards equality.[3]


International human rights norms establish the primacy of women’s right to live a life free of gender-based violence and provide that States cannot invoke any cultural discourses, including notions of custom, tradition or religion, to justify or condone any act of violence. This also means that they may not deny, trivialize or otherwise minimize the harm caused by such violence by referring to these notions.


This mandate has thoroughly analysed dominant culture-based paradigms that justify or explain violations of women human rights, which reduce violence against women to a cultural problem. Deeply-rooted patriarchal attitudes and conduct based on the assumed superiority of men in the public and private spheres, and the perception that women are weak and vulnerable, undermine women’s social status globally. These values surface through various vectors, including cultural practices and constitute key obstacles inhibiting structural and attitudinal changes necessary to the full enjoyment of women’s human rights. 


Unfortunately, identity politics and cultural relativist paradigms are increasingly employed to constrain women’s rights. Essentialised interpretations of culture are used either to justify violations of women’s rights in the name of culture, or to categorically condemn certain cultures as being inheritably primitive and violent towards women. This approach compartmentalizes women’s rights on the basis of a superficial division between “traditional” and “modern” cultures. It is biased in terms of “othering” Southern cultures, essentializing them as being harmful to women, and projecting women from traditional cultures as being uniformly victimized because of their ‘traditional cultures’. Simultaneously it treats violence in non-Southern cultures as individualized aberrations, and not as part of a culture that can and is often harmful to women. Both variants of cultural essentialism ignore the universal dimensions of patriarchal culture that subordinates, albeit differently, women in all societies and fails to recognize women’s agency in resisting and negotiating culture to improve their daily lives.


In light of this, this mandate has advocated for locating culture within the equality framework as part of addressing discrimination in the private arena, so as to facilitate women’s participation, decision-making and representation within the domain of culture. Such an approach allows for the unmasking of patterns of domination within cultures rather than differences among them, enables the questioning of hegemonic interpretations of culture, and, directs attention towards the patriarchal, political and economic interests within and outside the community - that gain from static, homogenous and monolithic representations of culture.


In order to counter and transform culture-based discourses that hinder the implementation of women’s human rights, States need to approach all forms of violence against women as a continuum and intersectional with other forms of inequality and discrimination. States also need to ensure that diverse women’s voices within specific communities are heard and that the claim for a right to a life free of violence is not sacrificed in the name of culture.


I wish you fruitful and productive dialogues, as you discuss and analyse these issues in today’s panel, and I thank you very much for your attention.    


[1] ECN 4 2002 83

[2] A/HRC/4/34, p.2.

[3] ECN 4 2002 83, p. 8.