Response of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and Governments to Harmful Practices

last updated June 2010

With the growing recognition of the impact of harmful practices, non-governmental and inter-governmental organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF, and UNFPA have developed programs within their competencies to address the problem. Governments and organizations are best able to combat the problem when working in tandem. 
United Nations
The United Nations has tried to address the problem primarily by establishing standards through campaigns, resolutions, conventions, and reports. For example, in 2000, 2002, and 2004 the UN passed resolutions addressing “honour crimes” entitled “Working towards the Elimination of Crimes against Women and Girls Committed in the Name of Honour.” Although the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women of 1979 (CEDAW) remains the most significant UN document with regard to women’s rights, the 1993 Declaration on the Elimination of all Forms of Violence Against Women (DEVAW) was the first to specifically address violence against women, defining and highlighting its causes. The appointment of a Special Rapporteur on violence against women, Ms. Radhika Coomaraswamy, chosen by the Commission on Human Rights in 1994, also brought about a shift in the world’s awareness and understanding of the significance of the problem. The mandate of the Special Rapporteur was extended in 2003; the current Special Rapporteur is Ms. Rashida Manjoo.

Inter-African Committee
The Inter-African Committee (IAC) has, since 1984, implemented programs to address harmful practices in 28 African countries. In its approaches, the IAC has used multi-pronged strategies that target stakeholders and are sensitive to the socio-cultural contexts in which they are applied.

In addition to involving religious leaders in efforts that are designed to clarify doctrinal and theological positions on the personhood of the woman, the IAC has also implemented programs targeted at youth, women, and legislators. By involving religious leaders in symposia on various topics regarding harmful practices, observers have seen the religious foundations of some practices erode. Youth have been particularly instrumental in campaign efforts, and educating and empowering women has enabled them to recognize the impact of harmful practices.
IAC has begun to influence international policy as a result of its affiliation with the United Nations, African Union, and the WHO. A significant proposal of the IAC was the Addis Ababa Declaration on Violence Against Women, whose ideas were later absorbed into the 2003 African Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, Articles 2, 5, and 6.
Non-governmental organizations like BAOBAB for Women’s Human Rights have also been effective in addressing religiously-sanctioned harmful practices. Working in Nigeria and finding its roots in the Women Living Under Muslim Laws organization, BAOBAB has provided legal aid to women who have been convicted of offences like fornication, which are considered crimes under Shari’a Penal Codes. What has made this organization particularly effective is that it uses local and international resources and understands and takes into account the cultural and religious environment in which it operates.

State Governments
Governments have responded to harmful practices primarily by enacting legislation that addresses the problem. For instance, in addition to ratifying various international instruments such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW, 1979), Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages (1962), Convention on the Political Rights of Women (1953), Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery (1956), Kyrgyzstan has also developed rich national legislation to protect women. Of note is the Kyrgyzstan criminal code which addresses bigamy and polygamy (article 153), under which perpetrators can be punished by up to 2 years imprisonment. Kyrgyzstan has also tried to use legislation such as the Law of the Kyrgyz Republic on State Guarantees of Equal Rights and Equal Opportunities for Men and Women (2008) to change accepted norms of gender equality. However, despite similar efforts by multiple governments, harmful practices persist. 
Because of the recognition that traditional harmful practices continue among immigrant populations within developed countries, many developed countries have enacted legislation to guard against them. For instance, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States have enacted legislation that addresses female genital mutilation.
Although the efforts of some states are certainly worth noting, mechanisms for implementation are also often lacking in many countries. For instance, in 1988, the first time Nigeria presented its report to the CEDAW Committee, Nigeria’s representative noted that there were many obstacles to implementation; the most significant being ingrained cultural attitudes about women, and “enlightenment campaigns” were the primary measures being used to address the problems. It is unclear whether this strategy is simply the result of fear of offending communities that have deeply ingrained harmful cultural/religious attitudes towards women. In countries like Bangladesh, effective implementation has been compromised by the subsuming of harmful practices under broader problems such as gender roles or violence in general. 

Overall, on the state level, implementation continues to be affected in three primary ways:

  1. Treaty ratification is often influenced by reservations that are motivated by religious and cultural concerns.
  2. States often cite religious/cultural justifications when reporting to human rights bodies.
  3. Legal distinctions between the public and private spheres within domestic systems often lead to impunity.
Challenges to Combating Harmful Practices
In the implementation of international human rights standards, the following challenges persist: disagreements regarding the best approaches or strategies, lack of resources and funding, failure to design comprehensive approaches, the lack of political will, discrimination, and fragmented efforts from governments and NGOs. Although legislation continues to be one of the most effective vehicles for addressing harmful practices, there is evidence that many of these practices have adapted to increasing criminalization. For instance, where exemptions to honor killings have been removed, researchers have found increases in the number of children instigated to participate in the activity, as they receive lesser sentences. In some cases, where female genital mutilation has been legally banned, the practice has remained but evolved into different forms, some in which the procedure has been performed in hospitals, giving it a false medical legitimacy. Some researchers have suggested the implementation of socio-communal legislation, passed down to communities by traditional village chiefs as an alternative as it may be more effective or respected than that passed down through national bodies.
Another significant challenge is that affected women are often unaware of the laws that protect them. Because some harmful practices tend to be pervasive in rural areas, it is not uncommon for women to be unaware of the protections that are available to them through the law and they are also often not economically or physically able to seek help.
BAOBAB for Women’s Human Rights. Annual Report. (2005). 
Coker-Appiah, Dorcas, The CEDAW Convention and Harmful Practices Against Women: The Work of the CEDAW Committee, 2009.
Khakimov, R. (2009). Legal Analysis of the legislation regulating relations in protection of women from violence in Kyrgyzstan. United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women.
Kouyate, M. (2009). Harmful traditional practices against women and legislation.
Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. (n.d.). Fact Sheet No.23, Harmful Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children.
Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. (n.d.a). Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences

Ras-Work, B. (2006). "The impact of harmful traditional practices on the girl child." Paper prepared for the United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women in collaboration with UNICEF, Florence, Italy, 25-28 September, 2006.
United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women. (2009). Good practices in legislation on harmful practices against women.
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."