Harmful Practices

last updated June 2010

In partnership with UN Women, The Advocates for Human Rights created the following section for UN Women's Virtual Knowledge Centre to End Violence against Women and Girls. This section, along with sections addressing the role of the justice sector in ending violence against women, may be found under Justice at www.endvawnow.org.

There is increasing awareness among researchers and policymakers that harmful practices, a form of value-based discrimination, continue to challenge the actualization of women’s rights worldwide. These practices are rooted in cultural and religious norms that are undergirded by patriarchal interpretations of religious texts and male domination. Although they are as varied as the cultures in which they occur, a common attribute of these practices is that they are related to women’s sexuality, and are often enforced as a way to keep women in subordinate roles.

Among the most common practices are female genital mutilation, forced marriage, son preference, stoning of women, wife inheritance, widowhood rites, sex selective abortions, child marriage, public harassment (euphemistically referred to in some countries as “Eve teasing”), bonded labor, abductions, bride price (dowry-related issues), forced impregnation, polygamy, acid attacks, restriction of second daughter’s right to marry, dedication of girls to temples, maltreatment of widows, burning/beheading women thought to be witches, virginity tests, breast ironing, stereotyping, and marital or date rape. These practices continue to grow and evolve through globalization and migration, with many of them transferring to new locations. Many of these practices are linked to other forms of violence against women; for instance, the denial of property rights is often linked to the maltreatment of widows, sexual violence to forced marriages, and the receipt of monetary payments for daughters to trafficking.

Although various international, regional, and domestic measures have been put in place to address these harmful practices, the effectiveness of the mechanisms or measures has been severely compromised by the fact that many of them are grounded in widely accepted cultural and religious norms. The challenge lies in finding ways to respect diverse cultures without allowing the human rights of women to be curbed by the mores and religious practices of the culture in which they live. A woman’s human rights are absolute, and may not be limited by those seeking to invoke culture or religion as a justification for practices which violate international human rights standards. Just as it would be unacceptable to cite religious or cultural norms to justify slavery, a woman may not be denied her human rights simply because of the way her culture or religion views gender roles. 

Explore the Issue
This section of the site allows users to increase their understanding of harmful practices through a discussion of the types of harmful practices that discriminate against women, the prevalence of the problem, the causes and complicating effects, and the response from non-profit organizations and governments throughout the world.

Research & Reports
This section of the site provides links to selected web-based materials on the harmful practices topics covered in Explore the Issue.

Law & Policy
This section of the site contains information on States' legal obligations and local laws relating to harmful practices. This section also provides links to selected national and model legislation that help combat harmful practices that discriminate against women.

This section provides guidelines for drafting laws that criminalize, sanction or prevent harmful practices that discriminate against women. Learn about the best methods for drafting legislation to combat harmful practices, including tips for specific types of harmful practices.


Grieff, S. (2010). No justice in justifications: Violence against women in the name of culture, religion, and tradition.

Kouyate, M. (2009). Harmful traditional practices against women and legislation.
United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women. (2009). Good practices in legislation on harmful practices against women.