Harmful Practices: Causes of & Risk Factors

last updated June 2010

Many of the causes and risk factors associated with the persistence of harmful practices are the same as those associated with violence against women in general, though they may be justified as being a part of a particular culture or religion. Among the most common are:

1.      Economic Inequalities
In most parts of the world, women lack control over economic resources and this lack of economic independence makes them vulnerable to the harmful practices noted in this section. According to UNESCAP, globalization and the ever-widening economic gap between rich and poor countries have also contributed to the victimization of women. In impoverished countries, traditional practices like dowry have become commercial transactions in which women are commoditized. Research has also shown, for instance, that although victims of acid attacks are from all classes, they are likely to be of low socioeconomic status. The same is true of women who are likely to be accused of and punished for witchcraft.  

2.      Patriarchy
The dominance of males, which is based both on material and ideological factors, has been found to be a significant cause of harmful practices. Because there is evidence that men often use these practices when they feel that women are threatening their authority, it is clear that these practices are being used as a way to keep women in submission to the men of their cultures. One pervasive consequence of patriarchy has been the stereotyping of women as beings who are unable to stand alone without male protection or patronage, as mere sexual objects, or as mothers without autonomous identity. These stereotypes, as well as the stigma attached to their perceived ‘violation,’ have had the detrimental effect of limiting women’s opportunities in the public sphere.

3.      Culture and Religion
Culture and religion play an important role in collective and individual identity. They are presented together in this section because, in practice, they are strongly linked. Both have often been misused and put forward as justification for practices that harm girls and women. As a result, there has been a persistent tension between proponents of cultural relativism and human rights ideology, particularly in the area of women’s rights, which continues to hinder progress in the advancement of human rights overall. Furthermore, some have been reluctant to address violations of women’s rights made in the name of “authentic” culture and religion due to pressures to recognize diversity and promote multiculturalism, and because of the inherent challenges involved in trying to clearly define the two concepts.
Women’s bodies are often viewed as culture bearers, and this, among other reasons, explains other harmful practices like clothing restrictions. Among the many harmful practices that are often justified in the name of culture and religion are honor killings, female genital mutilation, marital rape, stoning, flogging, and forced marriage. Religious extremism has been particularly harmful with regard to women’s rights. An extreme example is the Taliban’s institutionalization of discrimination against women in the name of religion, which has resulted in the exclusion of women from meaningful participation in the public sphere.
Evidence seems to suggest that harmful practices against women are based on selective interpretations of religious texts, not the precepts of the religions themselves. Son preference persists in many communities because sons are culturally considered responsible and capable of economic support and of continuing the family name. Inequalities between cultures and subcultures provide evidence of the role culture plays in suppressing the rights of women. A stark example was demonstrated in the 2003 study that showed that indigenous women in Australia were 28 times more likely to experience assault and be admitted to hospital than non-indigenous women.

4.      Climates of Impunity
Many if not all of the harmful practices perpetrated against women and girls were identified long ago, yet persist in spite of legislation prohibiting them. One of the largest hurdles to the realization of women’s rights and the elimination of harmful practices is the climate of impunity which exists in many affected cultures. The failure of legislatures to criminalize harmful practices and the unwillingness of police and courts to punish criminals for offenses that are justified by culture or religion discourages victims from coming forward for fear that they will be further victimized while the offenders go free.
5.      Parental, Property, and Inheritance Laws
Closely linked with issues of economic inequality is the pervasiveness of discriminatory laws regarding property and inheritance with respect to women. Where a wife or widow has no recognized right under the law with respect to children, property, or inheritance, leaving a violent situation often means alienation from her children as well as instant loss of status and economic security. Inheritance rights have left many women landless, forcing them to work in “invisible sectors” that continue to perpetuate inequities in the public sector.     
Amor, A. (2009). Study on freedom of religion or belief and the status of women in the light of religion and traditions. Addendum submitted to the Special Rapporteur in accordance with Commission on Human Rights resolution 2001/42.
Combating Acid Violence in Bangladesh, India, and Cambodia. (2011). A Report by the Avon Global Center for Women and Justice at Cornell Law School.
Grieff, S. (2010). No justice in justifications: Violence against women in the name of culture, religion, and tradition.
Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. (n.d.). Fact Sheet No.23, Harmful Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children.
Stormorken, Lalaine Sadiwa, Vincent, Katrine, Vervik, Ann-Kristin, & Santisteban, Ruth. No More Excuses! Ending all Harmful Traditional Practices against Girls and Young Women, Plan Norway and Plan Finland, 2007.
United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific. (2007). "Violence against women: Harmful traditional and cultural practices in the Asian and Pacific region."