Types & Prevalence of Harmful Practices

last updated June 2010

Throughout the world, there are many different types of harmful practices that violate the human rights of women. Some practices are endemic to a particular area of the world, while others are more widespread. Below are a few of the most prevalent and harmful practices that constitute violence against women and a violation of their personal dignity and human rights.
Son Preference, Female Infanticide, and Sex-Selective Abortions
“Son preference” is a custom rooted in gender inequality that is prevalent in many countries and found across religions and classes. It is, however, most apparent in countries of South Asia, where poverty is prevalent, and where families might view the “continuity of the male line” as a matter of particular importance. >>Learn more

Female Genital Mutilation
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), also known as female circumcision, is the practice in which a female child is subjected to a procedure involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for nonmedical reasons, whether committed within or outside of a medical institution. FGM is considered to be a part of the coming of age ritual for women in some cultures, but it is performed on girls of all ages, from infants to adults. The practice is common in Africa, where it is known to occur in twenty-five countries, as well as Indonesia, Malaysia, and Yemen. The practice also persists within immigrant populations in the Americas, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. FGM is erroneously believed to ensure virginity before marriage and is used as a means of controlling women's sexuality.  >>Learn more
Forced and Early Marriages
Girls being forced into marriage, sometimes at very young ages, is prevalent in many areas throughout the world. Forced or early marriages may be an expectation within the social or religious culture in which a girl or woman lives. In certain cultures within India, the Middle East, and Africa, the practice of forcing girls ages 11, 12, and 13 to marry and begin producing children is prevalent. Young girls command a higher bride-price (not to be confused with a dowry, which is paid by the wife’s parents to the family of the husband) for their parents due to the cultural value placed upon virginity. Regardless of the reason it is practiced, child marriage robs young girls of their childhood and forces them into dependent and subordinate positions within the husband’s family. A child bride is at increased risk of serious or fatal complications for both herself and her children arising from giving birth before having fully developed. >>Learn more
Bride Kidnapping
Bride kidnapping is a form of forced marriage. It is a phenomenon in some cultures in which a young girl or woman is abducted by an individual or group wishing to force that girl into a marriage which she and her family would not otherwise consent to.  >>Learn more

"Honor" Crimes
An “honor crime” involves the murder, attempted murder, physical or mental abuse, exile, or forced marriage of another perpetrated for the purpose of preserving family or communal ‘honor.’ Though honor crimes are committed against both men and women, in some cultures women are disproportionately targeted. Honor (within the context of honour crime) is defined with respect to a culture or religion’s assigned sexual and familial roles in what are typically patriarchal societies. Within these cultures and/or religions, actual or accused adultery, premarital relationships (which may or may not include sexual contact), rape, and relationships with ‘inappropriate’ persons are considered violations of family honor. Violence against women for actual or alleged violations are claimed to be justified by perpetrators as being necessary to restore the family’s honor. >>Learn more
Stoning or Flogging of Women
Stoning is a form of capital punishment in which the condemned is buried up to the neck and has rocks thrown at him or her by the executioners, leading to a slow and painful death. It most often occurs in Muslim contexts, though there is no reference to stoning in the Qur’an. A similar but non-lethal punishment of flogging is practiced in a number of Muslim cultures in Afghanistan, Indonesia, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Sudan. >>Learn more
Forced Pregnancy
In places where conflict is prevalent, rape and forced impregnation is often employed as a strategy to suppress ethnic or religious communities, making women highly vulnerable. >>Learn more
Polygamy is the practice of marrying more than one person. In nearly all instances, this takes the form of polygyny, in which a man may marry multiple wives but a woman may only marry one husband. Researchers have found a strong link between polygamy and violence against women. >>Learn more
Wife Inheritance and Maltreatment of Widows
The term ‘wife inheritance’ refers to the expectation within certain cultures that a widow marry or enter into a sexual relationship with the brother or kinsman of her late husband. Central to the practice is the belief that the widow owes her in-laws a child or children in return for maintaining her property rights in any inheritance she may receive. The practice occurs worldwide, including in countries such as Kenya, Malawi, South Africa, Zimbabwe, India, and Siberia. Refusal by a widow to be ‘inherited’ typically leads to her being disinherited, ostracized, and expelled from her home. In some versions of the practice, the widow is forced or coerced to first have sexual intercourse (often without use of a condom) with a social outcast in order to cleanse her husband’s evil spirits. Widows are also frequently evicted from their homes, or the marital property seized by in-laws upon the death of a woman’s husband. Property and inheritance laws are frequently unfair to women, often leaving widows in situations of great dependency. >>Learn more          

Bride-Price and Dowry-Related Violence
Dowry-related violence encompasses any type of violence, whether physical, psychological, or economic in nature, which is perpetrated due to expectations arising from a dowry. A dowry may include gifts, money, goods, or property given by the bride’s family to the groom or groom’s family before, during, or anytime after the marriage. While dowry is practiced in many different of the world, dowry-related violence is most prevalent in South Asia, in the nations of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. A bride-price is the counter-part of a dowry. In some cultures, sometimes the same cultures which practice dowry, money or gifts may be given by a groom to the family of the bride for the marriage of their daughter. A higher bride-price may be demanded based upon factors such as virginity, youth, and fertility. The practice of payment of a bride-price remains prevalent in many Asian countries, including Thailand, China, Africa, and parts of Central Asia such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia. >>Learn more

Acid Attacks and Stove Burning
An acid attack is an act in which an attacker throws or sprays acid in the face or body of the victim, leading to permanent disfigurement or scarring. The practice of stove burning originally involved a woman being burned alive through the deliberate tampering with a stove, causing an explosion. Another formulation occurs when the husband or other family member douses a woman in the stove’s kerosene oil before setting her on fire. >>Learn more

Witch Burning/Beheading
Witch-hunting and burning is a practice that has been going on in many parts of the world for centuries. People in such communities often attribute unexplained illnesses and deaths to sorcery, and evidence shows that women are disproportionately suspected and accused of the practice. >>Learn more

Virginity Tests
To varying degrees, the virginity of a bride is still considered a virtue in communities throughout the world. Virginity testing, the examination of the genitals as a way to determine sexual chastity, remains popular in communities that place a high premium on virginity for social, economic, and religious reasons. >>Learn more

Breast Ironing
Breast ironing is a practice, often performed by a mother, in which the breasts of pubescent girls are pounded using tools such as spatulas, grinding stones, hot stones, and hammers, as a means of delaying their development and protecting girls from rape and other types of unwanted male attention. >>Learn more




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.

United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women. (2009). Good practices in legislation on harmful practices against women.

Jalal, I. (2009). "Harmful practices against women in Pacific Island Countries: Customary and conventional laws." Expert paper written for the United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women.