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End worldwide rites harming women and girls


UNFPA, report, 19 rites, women and girls, FGM, child marriages, infanticide, widowhood practicesWe must tackle the root causes, especially gender-biased norms.

Urgent and accelerated action is needed to end female genital mutilation, child marriage, and other “harmful practices” and abuses carried out against women and girls, the UN sexual and reproductive health agency (UNFPA) has said, in its latest major report on the state of the world’s population.

And every year, millions of girls are subjected to practices that routinely harm them, both physically and emotionally, with the full knowledge and consent of their families, friends and communities, the report says.

The State of World Population 2020: Against my will, defying the practices that harm women and girls and undermine equality, highlights at least 19 such rites which are considered human rights violations:

Accusations of witchcraft;

Binding, branding, scarring or infliction of tribal marks;

Body modifications, such as lip discs, neck elongation;

Breast ironing;

Bride price and dowry-related violence;

Child marriage;

Corporal punishment;

Crimes committed in the name of so-called honour;

Female genital mutilation;

Gender-biased sex selection;



Nutritional taboos and traditional birth practices;

Providing too little or too much food to girls;


Taboos or practices that prevent women from controlling their own fertility;

Violent initiation rites;

Virginity testing; and

Widowhood practices.

The report focuses on the three most prevalent abuses: female genital mutilation, child marriage, and extreme bias against daughters in favour of sons.

An estimated 4.1 million girls will be subjected to female genital mutilation this year alone, and on any one day this week, 33,000 girls under age 18 will be forced into marriage, usually to much older men.

And an extreme and continuing preference for sons over daughters in some countries has fuelled gender-biased sex selection, or extreme neglect, that leads to girls’ death as children, and resulting in what amounts to around 140 million “missing females”, the report continues.

According to the report, some practices are waning in countries where they have been most prevalent. But because of population growth, the number of girls subjected to them will actually rise in the coming decades, if urgent action is not taken.

According to the UNFPA, ending child marriage and female genital mutilation worldwide is possible within 10 years, by scaling up efforts to keep girls in school longer and teach them life skills and to engage men and boys in social change.

But while progress has been made in ending some harmful practices worldwide, the COVID-19 pandemic is threatening to reverse gains.

A recent analysis revealed that if services and programmes remain shuttered for six months, an additional 13 million girls might well be forced into marriage and 2 million more girls subjected to female genital mutilation between now and 2030.

Countries that have ratified international treaties such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child, have a duty to end the harm, whether it’s inflicted on girls by family members, religious communities, health-care providers, commercial enterprises or State institutions themselves.

Many have responded with laws, but laws alone are not enough. Decades of experience and research show that bottom-up, grassroots approaches, are better at bringing change, UNFPA said.

Monica Ferro, UNFPA’s Geneva Director, pointed out that all these harmful practices are based on the “assumption that the rights and the well-being of women and girls are less of those of men and boys”, resulting in “fewer choices and “putting them under the sexual, economic and legal control of men, which is also a violation of their human rights.”

The new data gathered in the report, she continued, could be summarised in three words: respect, protect and fulfil:

“We must foster respect for women and girls, by changing attitudes and practices,” that commoditise them.

“We must protect women and girls by enforcing laws against practices like child marriage and female mutilation, but also by changing attitudes and norms.

“And governments must fulfil their obligations under human rights treaties,” that require elimination of these practices and rituals, she explained.

In order to get to zero, she added, action is needed to be taken much faster: “We can’t stop until we get to zero, and we can’t let the COVID-19 pandemic get in our way.”

UNFPA’s Executive Director, Dr Natalia Kanem, said: “We must tackle the problem by tackling the root causes, especially gender-biased norms.

“We must do a better job of supporting communities’ own efforts understand the toll these practices are taking on girls and the benefits that accrue to the whole of society by stopping them.

“The pandemic both makes our job harder and more urgent as so many more girls are now at risk,” Dr Kanem concluded: “We will not stop until the rights, choices and bodies of all girls are fully their own.”

To read the full report, click here.

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