This page offers topic-specific guidance on the use of the Human Rights and Reproductive Health Matrix, created by United States Agency for International Development (USAID)-supported POLICY Project Human Rights Working Group. To view other aspects of the Matrix, including guidance on other topics, please click on the Matix icon above.

Harmful Traditional Practices


?Harmful traditional practices? include female circumcision/genital mutilation, facial scarring, the force-feeding of women, early or forced marriage, nutritional taboos, traditional practices associated with childbirth, dowry-related crimes, honor crimes, and the consequences of son preference.[1] These practices adversely affect the health of women and children. Through controlling women?s bodies for men?s benefit and through ensuring the political and economic subordination of women, harmful traditional practices perpetuate the inferior status of women. Despite their harmful nature and their violation of international human rights laws, such practices persist because they are not questioned.[2]

Links to Reproductive Health

Traditional practices harmful to women and children inflict both immediate and long-term mental and physical pain on their victims. These practices expose women to sickness and death from hemorrhage, infection, keloid formation, and consequent obstructed labor. Ironically, while many traditional practices are intended to control women?s sexuality and reproductive capacity, these practices expose women to reproductive health risks that threaten women?s fertility and lives.

Human Rights Implicated

Harmful traditional practices also violate a number of recognized human rights protected in international and regional instruments and reaffirmed by international conference documents. These rights include the right to life and right to health and the following human rights:

Relevant Human Rights Documents

The following human rights treaties bind almost all countries and prohibit countries? toleration of harmful traditional practices:

Agreements reached at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (Cairo) and the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing), reinforce CEDAW, CRC, and ICCPR by including commitments to remove discriminatory, harmful, and coercive traditional practices:

         Cairo defines reproductive rights as including the right of individuals "to make decisions regarding reproduction free of discrimination, coercion and violence." Further, reproductive health is defined as "a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being... which implies that people are able to have a safe and satisfying sex life" (paragraph 7.3).

  • Beijing states that women have "the right to attain the highest standard of sexual and reproductive health" and "the right to make decisions concerning reproduction free of discrimination, coercion and violence" (paragraph 97).

Key Human Rights Arguments You Could Use

Although the rights to culture and religion and the rights of minorities have been invoked in support of harmful traditional practices, such arguments contradict guarantees in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that protect women's equality without exemption for the cultural or religious practices of the community. UNFPA, UNICEF, and WHO state unequivocally:

It is unacceptable that the international community remain passive in the name of a distorted vision of multiculturalism. Human behaviours and cultural values . . . have meaning and fulfil a function for those who practise them. However, culture is not static but it is in constant flux, adapting and reforming. People will change their behaviour when they understand the hazards and indignity of harmful practices and when they realize that it is possible to give up harmful practices without giving up meaningful aspects of their culture.[3]

A human rights perspective affirms the universality of the rights of women and girls to physical and mental integrity, to freedom from discrimination, and to the highest standard of health. Cultural claims cannot be invoked to justify violation of these rights.[4]

Legal Remedies You Could Try

The force and guidance of the international human rights system may spur policymaker action to prevent and punish harmful traditional practices and to promote more healthy and gender-equitable practices. Advocates can use international human rights mechanisms to promote and protect reproductive rights by doing the following:

  • Providing information on the extent of harmful traditional practices in the country to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Harmful Traditional Practices.
  • For a country party to the ICCPR, CRC, or CEDAW, reporting country progress in eliminating harmful traditional practices to any of these treaties? monitoring bodies. The country?s progress should include undertaking a review of laws and policies to ensure compliance with human rights standards against harmful traditional practices.

A note on legal remedies:
These topics highlight legal strategies health advocates can take to remedy situations abusive of reproductive health and human rights.

Legal remedies, such as submitting a complaint to an international treaty body or revising laws to comply with international human rights standards, promote enabling policy environments critical to promoting reproductive health and gender equity. At the same time, the social change needed to ensure human rights requires a range of advocacy strategies including, but not limited to, the legal system. For instance, advocates may need to focus on how laws are actually implemented. Or advocacy efforts may need to focus on the cultural beliefs that contradict basic rights or on educating men and women about their rights. Advocates should assess which approaches are most promising for promoting human rights within a given context. When possible, advocates should include legal remedies so to create the legal change necessary for reproductive health policy change.

[1] See the Beijing Declaration. See also Halima Embarek Warzazi, Third Report of the Special Rapporteur on Traditional Practices affecting the Health of Women and the Girl Child, para. 20, submitted to Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, E/CN.4/Sub.2/1999/14, July 9 1999.

[2] UNHCHR, Fact Sheet No.23, Harmful Traditional Practices Affecting
the Health of Women and Children, available at

[3] World Health Organization, UN Children?s Fund (UNICEF) and UN Population Fund, Joint Statement, February 1996.

[4] Amnesty International, Female Genital Mutilation: A human rights information pack (1997), available at

This Topic was written by Genevieve Grabman, JD, MPH, in collaboration with Anne K. Eckman, PhD and POLICY's Gender and Human Rights Working Groups. Questions and comments should be directed to