How can research, advocacy, and legal reform reverse social acceptance of practices that violate the human rights of women and girls? This paper by UNESCAP explores these issues through case studies from Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka and finds that harmful practices have evolved from originally non-harmful colonial, religious and cultural traditions. Combating the entrenched social norms that promote these practices requires a comprehensive, human rights-based approach.
Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka exhibit traditional and cultural practices that are harmful to women and girls. Practices that abound in all three countries include domestic violence related to dowry, child marriage and son preference. The severity of practices differs between countries, with Sri Lanka at the lesser end of the scale. The most shocking practices include honour killings in Pakistan, the selling of young girls to temples and the sex trade in Nepal, and female genital mutilation in Sri Lanka.
Cultural relativists argue that these practices are long-standing, voluntary religious and ethnic traditions. However, research reveals that this assumption does not account for the evolution of these practices. Practices sometimes rationalised as religious tradition have evolved to a point where they conflict with religious tenets. For example, the transformation of dowry in Sri Lanka has evolved from a present to the bride on the occasion of her wedding to a payment given to the groom. What was once a familial gift has become a source of marital dispute, domestic violence, or worse.
Furthermore, given the provisions for human rights in the national constitutions of these three countries, it is appropriate to apply international human rights standards to harmful practices. The rationale behind this is that:
- All three countries are party to both the Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. They have also all ratified the Protocol to the first treaty that commits these governments to effective implementation of the treaty conditions.
- All three countries have created constitutional provisions for fundamental rights regarding gender equality and bodily security. These include rights enforcement procedures.
- Customs and traditions are not static and therefore should be changed if they conflict with the legal provision of human rights to women and girls.
In order to stop the proliferation of harmful cultural practices, change in social norms and legal reforms are needed simultaneously. Successful reform must be part of a broader agenda that addresses human rights from a holistic perspective. Policymakers can usefully support:
- More research that deconstructs and raises awareness of the negative social and economic effects of these practices.
- Law reform and advocacy that creates adequate penalties for perpetrators, developing witness protection, and enforcing restraining orders. Such legal systems should be reinforced through regional and international networking.
- Local level implementation that focuses on complementary reforms. These should include initiatives such as uniform registration processes for birth and marriage, compulsory primary education for girls and increased access to economic capital.