Harmful Traditional Practices and their Effects on Women and the Girl Child


Harmful traditional practices and their effects on women and the girl child

Traditional cultural practices reflect values and beliefs held by members of a community for periods often spanning generations. Every social grouping in the world has specific traditional cultural practices and beliefs, some of which are beneficial to all members, while others are harmful to a specific group, such as women.

These harmful traditional practices include:

1. Female genital mutilation (FGM):

2. Forced Feeding of Women

3. Early Marriage

4. The various taboos or practices which prevent women from controlling their own fertility

5. Nutritional taboos and traditional birth practices

6. Son preference and its implications for the status of the girl child

7. Female infanticide

8. Early pregnancy

9. Dowry price

Despite their harmful nature and their violation of international human rights laws, such practices persist because they are not questioned and take on an aura of morality in the eyes of those practicing them.

The international community has become aware of the need to achieve equality between the sexes and of the fact that an equitable society cannot be attained if fundamental human rights of half of human society, i.e. women, continue to be denied and violated.

However, the bleak reality is that the harmful traditional practices focused on in this article have been performed for male benefit. Female sexual control by men, and the economic and political subordination of women, perpetuate the inferior status of women and inhibit structural and attitudinal changes necessary to eliminate gender inequality.

As early as the 1950s, United Nations specialized agencies and human rights bodies began considering the question of harmful traditional practices affecting the health of women, in particular female genital mutilation. But these issues have not received consistent broader consideration, and action to bring about any substantial change has been slow or superficial.

A number of reasons are given for the persistence of traditional practices detrimental to the health and status of women, including the fact that, in the past, neither the Governments concerned nor the international community challenged the sinister implications of such practices, which violate the rights to health, life, dignity and personal integrity.

The international community remained wary about treating these issues as a deserving subject for international and national scrutiny and action. Harmful practices such as female genital mutilation were considered sensitive cultural issues falling within the spheres of women and the family. For a long time, Governments and the international community had not expressed sympathy and understanding for women who, due to ignorance or unawareness of their rights, endured pain, suffering and even death inflicted on themselves and their female children.

Despite the apparent slowness of action to challenge and eliminate harmful traditional practices, the activities of human rights bodies in this field have, in recent years, resulted in noticeable progress.

Traditional practices have become a recognized issue concerning the status and human rights of women and female children. The slogan "Women's Rights are Human Rights", adopted at the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993, as well as the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, adopted by the General Assembly the same year, captured the reality of the status accorded to women.

The harmful traditional practices identified in this article are categorized as separate issues; however, they are all consequences of the value placed on women and the girl child by society.

They persist in an environment where women and the girl child have unequal access to education, wealth, health and employment.

We identify and analyses the background to harmful traditional practices, their causes, and their consequences for the health of women and the girl child.


Harmful traditional practices and their effects on women and the girl child

1. Female genital mutilation

Female genital mutilation

Female genital mutilation (FGM), or female circumcision as it is sometimes erroneously referred to, involves surgical removal of parts or all of the most sensitive female genital organs.

It is an age-old practice which is perpetuated in many communities around the world simply because it is customary. Female genital mutilation forms an important part of the rites of passage ceremony for some communities, marking the coming of age of the female child. It is believed that, by mutilating the female's genital organs, her sexuality will be controlled; but above all it is to ensure a woman's virginity before marriage and chastity thereafter.

In fact, Female genital mutilation imposes on women and the girl child a catalogue of health complications and untold psychological problems.

The practice of Female genital mutilation violates, among other international human rights laws, the right of the child to the "enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health", as laid down in article of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The origin of Female genital mutilation has not yet been established, but records show that the practice predates Christianity and Islam in practicing communities of today. In ancient Rome, metal rings were passed through the labia minora of slaves to prevent procreation; in medieval England, metal chastity belts were worn by women to prevent promiscuity during their husbands' absence; evidence from mummified bodies reveals that, in ancient Egypt, both excision and infibulation were performed, hence Pharaonic circumcision; in tsarist Russia, as well as nineteenth-century England, France and America, records indicate the practice of clitoridectomy. In England and America, Female genital mutilation was performed on women as a "cure" for numerous psychological ailments. The age at which mutilation is carried out varies from area to area. Female genital mutilation is performed on infants as young as a few days old, on children from 7 to 10 years old, and on adolescents. Adult women also undergo the operation at the time of marriage. Since Female genital mutilation is performed on infants as well as adults, it can no longer be seen as marking the rites of passage into adulthood, or as ensuring virginity. Among the types of surgical operation on the female genital organs listed below, there are many variations, performed throughout Africa, Asia, the Middle East, the Arabian Peninsula, Australia and Latin America.


Types of surgical forms

(a) Circumcision or Sunna ("traditional") circumcision: This involves the removal of the prepuce and the tip of the clitoris. This is the only operation which, medically, can be likened to male circumcision.

(b) Excision or clitoridectomy: This involves the removal of the clitoris, and often also the labia minora. It is the most common operation and is practiced throughout Africa, Asia, the Middle East and the Arabian Peninsula.

(c) Infibulations or Pharaonic circumcision: This is the most severe operation, involving excision plus the removal of the labia majora and the sealing of the two sides, through stitching or natural fusion of scar tissue. What is left is a very smooth surface, and a small opening to permit urination and the passing of menstrual blood. This artificial opening is sometimes no larger than the head of a match.

Another form of mutilation which has been reported is introcision, practised specifically by the Pitta-Patta aborigines of Australia. When a girl reaches puberty, the whole tribe-both sexes-assembles. The operator, an elderly man, enlarges the vaginal orifice by tearing it downward with three fingers bound with opossum string.

In other districts, the perineum is split with a stone knife. This is usually followed by compulsory sexual intercourse with a number of young men. It is reported that introcision has been practiced in eastern Mexico and in Brazil. In Peru, in particular among the Conibos, a division of the Pano Indians in the north-east, an operation is performed in which, as soon as a girl reaches maturity, she is intoxicated and subjected to mutilation in front of her community.

The operation is performed by an elderly woman, using a bamboo knife. She cuts around the hymen from the vaginal entrance and severs the hymen from the labia, at the same time exposing the clitoris. Medicinal herbs are applied, followed by the insertion into the vagina of a slightly moistened penis-shaped object made of clay. Like all other harmful traditional practices, FGM is performed by women, with a few exceptions (in Egypt, men are known to perform the operation).

In most rural settings throughout Africa, the operation is accompanied with celebrations and often takes place away from the community at a special hidden place.

The operation is carried out by women (excisors) who have acquired their "skills" from their mothers or other female relatives; they are often also the community's traditional birth attendants.

The type of operation to be performed is decided by the girl's mother or grandmother beforehand and payment is made to the excisor before, during and after the operation, to ensure the best service. This payment, partly in kind and partly in cash, is a vital source of livelihood for the excisors.

The conditions under which these operations take place are often unhygienic and the instruments used are crude and unsterilized. A kitchen knife, a razor-blade, a piece of glass or even a sharp fingernail are the tools of the trade. These instruments are used repeatedly on numerous girls, thus increasing the risk of blood-transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS.

The operation takes between 10 and 20 minutes, depending on its nature; in most cases, anaesthetic is not administered. The child is held down by three or four women while the operation is done. The wound is then treated by applying mixtures of local herbs, earth, cow-dung, ash or butter, depending on the skills of the excisor.

If infibulations is performed, the child's legs are bound together to impair mobility for up to 40 days. If the child dies from complications, the excisor is not held responsible; rather, the death is attributed to evil spirits or fate. Throughout South-East Asia and urban African communities, Female genital mutilation is becoming increasingly medicalized. Female genital mutilation is known to be practiced in at least 25 countries in Africa.

Infibulations is practiced in Djibouti, Egypt, some parts of Ethiopia, Mali, Somalia and the northern part of the Sudan. Excision and circumcision occur in parts of Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, Côte d'Ivoire, the Gambia, the northern part of Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Liberia, Mauritania, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Togo, Uganda and parts of the United Republic of Tanzania. Outside Africa, a certain form of female genital mutilation exists in Indonesia, Malaysia and Yemen. 

Recent information has revealed that the practice also exists in some European countries and Australia among immigrant communities. Female genital mutilation is a custom or tradition synthesized over time from various values, especially religious and cultural values. The reasons for maintaining the practice include religion, custom, decreasing the sexual desire of women, hygiene, aesthetics, facility of sexual relations, fertility, etc. 

In general, it can be said that those who preserve the practice are largely women who live in traditional societies in rural areas. Most of these women follow tradition passively.

In the countries where the practice exists, most women believe that, as good Muslims, for example, they have to undergo the operation. In order to be clean and proper, fit for marriage, female circumcision is a precondition.

Among the Bambara in Mali, it is believed that, if the clitoris touches the head of a baby being born, the child will die. The clitoris is seen as the male characteristic of the woman; in order to enhance her femininity, this male part of her has to be removed. Among women in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somalia and the Sudan, circumcision is performed to reduce sexual desire and also to maintain virginity until marriage.

A circumcised woman is considered to be clean. Establishing identity and belongingness is another reason advanced for the perpetuation of the practice. For example, in Liberia and Sierra Leone, groups of girls of 12 and 13 of the indigenous population undergo an initiation rite, conducted by an older woman "Sowie". This involves education on how to be a good wife or co-wife, the use of herbal medicine and the "secrets" of female society. It also involves the ritual of circumcision.


Health and psychological implications

The effects of female genital mutilation have short-term and long-term implications. Hemorrhage, infection and acute pain are the immediate consequences. Keloid formation, infertility as a result of infection, obstructed labour and psychological complications are identified as later effects. In rural areas where untrained traditional birth attendants perform the operations, complications resulting from deep cuts and infected instruments can cause the death of the child.

Most physical complications result from infibulations, although cataclysmic hemorrhage can occur during circumcision with the removal of the clitoris; accidental cuts to other organs can also lead to heavy loss of blood. Acute infections are commonplace when operations are carried out in unhygienic surroundings and with unsterilized instruments. The application of traditional medicine can also lead to infection, resulting in tetanus and general septicaemia. Chronic infection can also lead to infertility and anaemia.

Haematocolpos, or the inability to pass menstrual blood (because the remaining opening is often too small), can lead to infection of other organs and also infertility. Obstetric complications are the most frequent health problem, resulting from vicious scars in the clitoral zone after excision. These scars open during childbirth and cause the anterior perineum to tear, leading to hemorrhaging that is often difficult to stop.

Infibulated women have to be opened, or deinfibulated, on delivery of their child and it is common for them to be reinfibulated after each delivery. There has been little research in the area of the psychological implications of FGM, but evidence indicates that most children experience recurring nightmares.

Teenagers, in particular, have to live in two very different cultures, where different values prevail. At school they move within the very liberal setting of the Western culture; at home they have to conform to values held by their parents.

Some of these values often conflict. For some teenagers this is proving to be problematic. Girls who have been genitally mutilated have to come to terms with the fact that they are not like their classmates. Mood swings and irritability, a constant state of depression, and anxiety have all been noted among infibulated girls. A small number, upon reaching the age of consent, are being deinfibulated without their parents' knowledge and engaging in premarital relationships, thus validating the reasoning behind their parents' wishes to have the operation performed.

There are also reports of psychological and health problems suffered by women seeking medical assistance in Western medical,,facilities due to lack of knowledge regarding genital mutilation. Excised and infibulated women have special needs which have been ignored or dealt with on a trial-and-error basis. In Western countries, severe forms of Female genital mutilation present challenges to midwives and obstetricians in providing antenatal and post-natal care. For example, professionals need training to know how to deliver infibulated women. 

The provision of health care for women and girls who have been genitally mutilated should be appropriate and sensitive to their needs. Health promotion work through women's health services can develop appropriate information materials and actively contribute to outreach work and awareness rising.


2. Son preference and its implications for the status of the girl child

One of the principal forms of discrimination and one which has far-reaching implications for women is the preference accorded to the boy child over the girl child. This practice denies the girl child good health, education, recreation, economic opportunity and the right to choose her partner, violating her rights under articles 2, 6, 12, 19, 24, 27 and 28 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Son preference refers to a whole range of values and attitudes which are manifested in many different practices, the common feature of which is a preference for the male child, often with concomitant daughter neglect. It may mean that a female child is disadvantaged from birth; it may determine the quality and quantity of parental care and the extent of investment in her development; and it may lead to acute discrimination, particularly in settings where resources are scarce. Although neglect is the rule, in extreme cases son preference may lead to selective abortion or female infanticide.

In many societies, the family lineage is carried on by male children. The preservation of the family name is guaranteed through the son(s). Except in a few countries (e.g. Ethiopia), a girl takes her husband's family name, dropping that of her own parents. The fear of losing a name prompts families to wish to have a son. Some men marry a second or a third wife to be sure of having a male child. Among many communities in Asia and Africa, sons perform burial rites for parents. Parents with no male child do not expect to have an appropriate burial to "secure their peace in the next world". 

In almost all religions, ceremonies are performed by men. Priests, pastors, sheikhs and other religious leaders are men of great status to whom society attaches great importance, and this important role for men obliges parents to wish for a male child. Religious leaders have a major involvement in the perpetuation of son preference.

Son preference is universal and not unique to developing countries or rural areas. It is a practice enshrined in the value systems of most societies. It thus dictates the value judgments, expectations and behaviour of family members. Son preference is a transcultural phenomenon, more marked in Asian societies and historically rooted in the patriarchal system. 

In certain countries in the Asian region, the phenomenon is less prevalent than in others. Son preference is stronger in countries where patriarchy and patriliny are more firmly rooted. Tribal societies, which are matrilineal societies, tended to be more gender egalitarian until the advent of settled agriculture.

In almost all regions, the practice is rooted in culture and the economics of son preference, these factors playing a major role in the low valuation and neglect of female children. The practice of son preference emerged with the shift from subsistence agriculture, which was primarily controlled by women, to settled agriculture, which is primarily controlled by men.

In the patrilineal landowning communities with settled agriculture which are prevalent in the Asian region, the economic obligations of sons towards parents are greater. The son is considered to be the family pillar, which ensures continuity and protection of the family property. Sons provide the workforce and have to bring in a bride-"an extra pair of hands". Sons are the source of family income and have to provide for parents in their old age. 

They are also the interpreters of religious teachings and the performers of rituals, especially on the death of parents, which include feeding a large number of people, sometimes several villages. As soldiers, sons protect the community and hold political power.

Son preference in the Asian region manifests itself either covertly or overtly. The birth of a son is welcomed with celebration as an asset, whereas that of a girl is seen as a liability, an impending economic drain. According to an Asian proverb, "bringing up girls is like watering the neighbour's garden".

Psychological and health consequences

The psychological effect of son preference on women and the girl child is the internalization of the low value accorded them by society. Scientific evidence of the deleterious effect of son preference on the health of female children is scarce, but abnormal sex ratios in infant and young child mortality rates, in nutritional status indicators and even in population figures show that discriminatory practices are widespread and have serious repercussions. Geographically, there is often a close correspondence between the areas of strong son preference and of health disadvantage for females.

The area’s most affected by the problem seem to be South Asia (Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan), the Middle East (Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, Morocco, the Syrian Arab Republic, Tunisia, Turkey) and parts of Africa (Cameroon, Liberia, Madagascar, Senegal). 

In Latin America, there is evidence of abnormal sex ratios in mortality figures in Ecuador, Mexico, Peru and Uruguay. Discrimination in the feeding and care of female infants and/or higher rates of morbidity and malnutrition have been reported in most of the countries already listed and also in Bolivia, Colombia, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Nigeria, the Philippines and Saudi Arabia. 

More than two thirds of the world's population lives in countries where registration of death does not occur and many more live in countries where death rates are not published by sex. Moreover, discrimination against girls has to be extreme to emerge in mortality rates. For every growing girl who dies, there are many whose health and potential for growth and development are permanently impaired. Countless reports the world over have demonstrated that, in societies where son preference is practiced, the health of the female child is adversely affected.

In some communities in the Asian region where son preference is highly marked, efforts to differentiate a female child from a male child through various socio-economic norms and practices start as early as the foetal stage and continue throughout the entire life cycle. In these communities, amniocentesis tests and sonography for sex determination have resulted in the abortion of female foetuses. The introduction and expansion of scientific methods of sex detection have led to a revival of female foeticide and infanticide.



Access to education by itself is not enough to eliminate values held by society, for such values are in most countries transmitted into educational curricula and textbooks. Women are thus still depicted as passive and domestically oriented, while men are depicted as dominant and as breadwinners. 

Education does, however, offer the female child an improved opportunity to be less dependent on men in later life. It increases her prospects of obtaining work outside the home. As laid down in articles 28 and 29 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, all children have the right to education, and the content of such education should be directed to the development of the child's personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential.

According to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the expansion of educational opportunities over the past several decades has clearly affected girls, although this has not been a result of deliberate policy to reduce gender disparities in educational access. Girls' education, measured by gross primary school enrollment ratios, has improved substantially in the Middle East and North Africa region, for example. Nevertheless, in 1990, the region still had 44 million illiterate mothers, a large and increasing backlog left over from times of lower enrollment levels. Differences in primary school enrollment levels for boys and girls and competition between them are still very significant in a number of countries. 

In countries where overall enrollment is much lower than desired, girls are particularly disadvantaged.

Although in many countries school drop-out rates are steadily falling, they continue to be higher among girls than among boys. The reasons for the high drop-out rate among girls are poverty, early marriage, helping parents with housework and agricultural work, the distance of schools from homes, the high costs of schooling, parents' illiteracy and indifference, and the lack of a positive educational climate. Girls begin school very late and withdraw with the onset of puberty. 

Parents do not see the benefits of girls' education because girls are given away in marriage to serve the husband's family. Sons are given priority. In certain countries, enrollment rates for girls have actually declined despite attempts to increase them.


Recreation and work opportunities

The Rights of the Child, States parties "recognize the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities". However, from an early age, girls from rural and poor urban homes are burdened with domestic tasks and child care, which leaves them no time to play. Studies have shown that recreation plays a vital part in a child's emotional and mental development. When time for play is found by girls, it often takes place near the home. Young boys, however, have fewer demands made of them and are allowed to engage in activities outside the home. The status of girls is linked to that of women and their exploitation. A woman's work never ends, especially in rural areas and in poor urban households.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women calls for the elimination of discrimination against women in the field of employment, "in order to ensure, on a basis of equality of men and women, the same rights". It also calls upon States to ensure that women in rural areas have access to agricultural credit and loans, marketing facilities, appropriate technology and equal treatment in land and agrarian reform . Evidence indicates, however, that as girls grow older they face discriminatory treatment in gaining access to economic opportunities. 

Major inequalities persist in employment, access to credit, inheritance rights, marriage laws and other socio-economic dispensations. Compared with men, women have fewer opportunities for paid employment and less access to skill training that would make such employment possible. Women are usually restricted to low-paid and casual jobs, or to informal activities.

Landlessness has increased among women, and the number of women cultivators has declined in some regions, partly due to increased mechanization of agriculture. An increasing number of women in most developing countries are occupied in the informal, invisible sectors where national social and labour legislation on maternity benefits, equal wages and crèche facilities does not apply.


3. Female infanticide

Sex bias or son preference places the female child in a disadvantageous position from birth.

In some communities, however, particularly in Asia, the practice of infanticide ensures that some female children have no life at all, violating the basic right to life laid down in article 6 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Selective abortion, foeticide and infanticide all occur because the female child is not valued by her culture, or because certain economic and legislative acts have ruled her life worthless.

In India, for example, infanticide was formally legislated against during British rule, after centuries of practice in some communities. However, recent reports have shown that there is a revival. In certain parts of India and Pakistan, women are still considered unnecessary evils. In the past, when victorious armies took their revenge on defeated communities, women were raped as part of the spoils of war. Subsequently, these communities resorted to killing their daughters at birth or when the enemy was advancing, to spare the female population and community from shame.

Modern techniques such as amniocentesis and ultrasound tests have given women greater power to detect the sex of their babies in time to abort. Illegal abortion, particularly of female foetuses, either self-inflicted or performed by unskilled birth attendants, under poor sanitary conditions has led to increased maternal mortality, particularly in South and South-East Asia. Female foeticide is an emerging problem in some parts of India, and the Government has introduced a bill in Parliament to ban the use of amniocentesis for sex-determination purposes. Such misuse of amniocentesis is also prohibited in the States of Maharashtra, Punjab, Rajasthan and Haryana, where the problem is more prevalent.


4. Early marriage

Early marriage is another serious problem which some girls, as opposed to boys, must face. The practice of giving away girls for marriage at the age of 11, 12 or 13, after which they must start producing children, is prevalent among certain ethnic groups in Asia and Africa. 

The principal reasons for this practice are the girls' virginity and the bride-price. Young girls are less likely to have had sexual contact and thus are believed to be virgins upon marriage; this condition raises the family status as well as the dowry to be paid by the husband. 

In some cases, virginity is verified by female relatives before the marriage. Child marriage robs a girl of her childhood-time necessary to develop physically, emotionally and psychologically. In fact, early marriage inflicts great emotional stress as the young woman is removed from her parents' home to that of her husband and in-laws. Her husband, who will invariably be many years her senior, will have little in common with a young teenager. 

It is with this strange man that she has to develop an intimate emotional and physical relationship. She is obliged to have intercourse, although physically she might not be fully developed.

Girls from communities where early marriages occur are also victims of son preferential treatment and will probably be malnourished, and consequently have stunted physical growth. Neglect of and discrimination against daughters, particularly in societies with strong son preference, also contributes to early marriage of girls.

It has been generally recognized at United Nations seminars on traditional practices affecting women and children, and on the basis of research, that early marriage devalues women in some societies and that the practice continues as a result of son preference. 

In some countries, girls as young as a few months old are promised to male suitors for marriage. Girls are fattened up, groomed, adorned with jewels and kept in seclusion to make them attractive so that they can be married off to the highest bidder. 

Health complications that result from early marriage in the Middle East and North Africa, for example, include the risk of operative delivery, low weight and malnutrition resulting from frequent pregnancies and lactation in the period of life when the young mothers are themselves still growing.

Another economic reason which perpetuates the practice of female genital mutilation is related to dowries.


5. The dowry price

The dowry price of a woman is her exchange value in cash, kind or any other agreed form, such as a period of employment. This value is determined by the family of the bride-to-be and her future in-laws. Both families must gain from the exchange. 

The woman's in-laws want an extra pair of hands and children; her family desire payment which will provide greater security for other relatives.

The dowry price will be higher if the woman's virginity has been preserved, notably through genital mutilation. In certain communities in South Asia, the low status of girls has to be compensated for by the payment of a dowry by the parents of the girl to the husband at the time of marriage. 

This has resulted in a number of dowry crimes, including mental and physical torture, starvation, rape, and even the burning alive of women by their husbands and/or in-laws in cases where dowry payments are not met. 

It should be noted that the Committee on the Rights of the Child, in a number of recommendations in the light of article 2 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, has called upon States to recognize the principle of equality before the law and forbid gender discrimination, including the adoption of legislation prohibiting harmful traditional practices such as genital mutilation, forced and early marriage of girl children, early pregnancy and related prejudicial health practices. 

The work of the Committee has also permitted the identification of certain areas where law reform should be undertaken, in both civil and penal areas, such as the minimum age for marriage and establishment of the age of criminal responsibility as being the attainment of puberty.

Some States have argued that girls attain their physical maturity earlier, but it is the view of the Committee that maturity cannot simply be identified with physical development when social and mental development are lacking and that, on the basis of such criteria, girls are considered adults before the law upon marriage, thus being deprived of the comprehensive protection ensured by the Convention on the Rights of the Child. 

The International Conference on Population and Development, held at Cairo in September 1994, encouraged Governments to rise the minimum age for marriage.

In her preliminary report to the Commission on Human Rights, the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, Ms. Radhika Coomaraswamy, also recognized that the age of marriage was a factor contributing to the violation of women's rights.


6. Early pregnancy, nutritional taboos and practices related to child delivery

Early pregnancy can have harmful consequences for both young mothers and their babies. According to UNICEF, no girl should become pregnant before the age of 18 because she is not yet physically ready to bear children. Babies of mothers younger than 18 tend to be born premature and have low body weight; such babies are more likely to die in the first year of life. The risk to the young mother's own health is also greater. Poor health is common among indigent pregnant and lactating women.

In many parts of the developing world, especially in rural areas, girls marry shortly after puberty and are expected to start having children immediately. Although the situation has improved since the early 1980s, in many areas the majority of girls under 20 years of age are already married and having children. 

Although many countries have raised the legal age for marriage, this has had little impact on traditional societies where marriage and child-bearing confer "status" on a woman. Those who start having children early generally have more children, at shorter intervals, than those who embark on parenthood later.

Fertility rates have been falling over the past decade, but they remain very high in Africa, parts of Latin America and Asia. Once again, the link between delayed child-bearing and education is crucial.

An additional health risk to young mothers is obstructed labour, which occurs when the baby's head is too big for the orifice of the mother. This provokes vesicovaginal fistulas, especially when an untrained traditional birth attendant forces the baby's head out unduly.

Generally throughout the developing world, the average food intake of pregnant and lactating mothers is far below that of the average male. Cultural practices, including nutritional taboos, ensure that pregnant women are deprived of essential nutriments, and as a result they tend to suffer from iron and protein deficiencies. Poor health can be improved by a more balanced diet.

The choice of food consumed is determined by a number of factors, including availability of natural resources, economics, religious beliefs, social status and traditional taboos. Because these factors place limits in one way or another on the intake of food, communities and individuals are deprived of essential nutriments and, as a result, physical and mental development is impaired. This is generally the case in most developing countries, but especially throughout Africa.

Although poor distribution of resources-whether due to harsh geographical or climatic conditions in a region, or to poverty resulting from a lack of purchasing power-contributes greatly to the severe imbalance of diets throughout Africa, taboos placed on food for religious or cultural reasons are an unnecessary practice which exacerbates the situation.

The reasons for such taboos are many, but all are steeped in superstition. Many taboos are upheld because it is believed that the consumption of a particular animal or plant will bring harm to the individual.

Permanent taboos are also placed on female members of most communities throughout Africa. From infancy, the female child is given a low-nutrition diet. She is weaned at a much earlier age than the male infant, and throughout her life she will be deprived of high-protein food such as animal meat, eggs, fish and milk. As a result, the intake of nutriments by the female population is lower than that of the male population.

Temporary taboos which are applicable only at certain times in the life of an individual also affect women disproportionately. Most communities throughout Africa have food taboos especially for pregnant women. Often these taboos exclude the consumption of nutriments essential for the expectant mother and foetus.

These nutritional taboos are unnecessary impositions made on women, who are already malnourished. It is perhaps not surprising that maternal and infant mortality rates are so high and life expectancy low in the countries concerned. But nutritional taboos also have far-reaching implications for women in the field of work, where their levels of productivity can be affected.

Lack of basic knowledge of human bodily functions can lead to illogical conclusions when illness sets in, or especially when a mother or her infant dies. Surrounded by myths and superstition, what may is a simple mishap can be explained in much more sinister terms as the product of evil spirits or bad omens. 

Most rural areas throughout the developing world have disproportionately fewer health centers and clinics, trained midwives, nurses and doctors than urban areas. For most rural dwellers, health treatment must be obtained from traditional birth attendants (TBAs).

Most TBAs have no formal training in health practices but acquire their skills via apprenticeship. These are skills passed down through generations of women. By observing a given situation, the TBA learns which remedy to use for which illness, or how to perform different kinds of delivery. If the situation changes, they try to adapt their knowledge and remedies and hope that that works. If things go wrong, however, supernatural explanations are given; blame is never attributed to the TBA.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than half the births in developing nations are attended by TBAs and relatives. Although these women have every good intention to assist their patients, mortality rates are higher in the rural areas where they operate. The use of herbal mixtures and magic is common during delivery throughout Africa. The chemical components of some of these mixtures are beneficial, but others are quite lethal, especially when taken in large dosage. In the case of obstructed labour, the abdomen is at times massaged or pressed to force the baby out.

Some TBAs perform surgical operations to extract the foetus, using a knife or razor-blade to cut the labia minora and vaginal opening. A similar operation, known as the "Gishiri cut", is performed in some parts of Africa, and the likely complications are known to be hemorrhaging and infection. Among the most bizarre treatments for obstructed labour are the psychological ones. In many societies, difficulty in labour or delay in delivery is believed to be punishment for marital infidelity. The woman is pressured to confess her misdeed so that labour may continue without complications.

This practice, which inflicts great mental cruelty on a woman already in agony due to obstructed labour, is prevalent in several African countries.

In addition to the psychological trauma suffered by the woman, the practice further delays her being taken to hospital. Treatment of obstructed labour by ineffective and harmful traditional methods can also cause uterine rupture. Rupture of the uterus still constitutes one of the major causes of maternal death in obstetric practice in developing countries. Death rates as high as 37 per cent have been reported in studies of hospitalized women with ruptured uterus. Foetal mortality is also very high: it was 100 per cent in a study of 144 cases of uterine rupture in one African country and 96 per cent in an Indian review of 181 cases. Even when obstructed labour does not result in maternal death, it leads to prolonged or even permanent ill health in the majority of cases. For example, vesicovaginal fistula is a condition that has traumatic physical as well as social consequences. Due to prolonged pressure on the bladder during obstructed labour, the lower genital tract is severely damaged, causing a false passage between the bladder and the vagina.

The woman suffers from incontinence of urine and sometimes of faeces as well, since 10 to 15 per cent of all vesicovaginal fistula cases have associated rectovaginal fistula. In two African countries, a practice known as "Zur Zur" is performed on women between the 34th and 35th weeks of their first pregnancy. A deep cut is made in the anterior wall of the vagina, sometimes on the posterior wall. 

The wound is allowed to bleed, then the woman rests for a while before being sent home to nurse her wound. The purpose of this operation is to prepare the woman for an easy delivery. 

However, the consequences can be death through excessive bleeding, shock, infection of the birth canal, and vesicovaginal or vaginal fistula. Misdiagnoses have been made by midwives and doctors who receive these women once complications set in.

The bleeding is often mistaken for an ante-partum hemorrhage, and Caesarean sections have been performed; but invariably the bleeding continues. Midwives are fighting to get the practice stopped in the countries concerned. 

Various forms of contraception and methods of tightening the vagina are practiced throughout the world.

 Many involve inserting herbal mixtures and foreign objects-for example, aluminum hydroxide, cloth, stone, soap and lime-into the vagina. Many of these inserts have an irritating or erosive effect on the vaginal mucosa, which is a natural defense against infections and disease, such as HIV.


7. Violence against women

Most of the practices reviewed so far constitute acts of violence against women or the girl child by the family and the community, and are often condoned by the State. In its resolution 1994/45 of 4 March 1994, the Commission on Human Rights recognized other forms of non-traditional practices, such as rape and domestic violence, as violence against women. In that resolution, the Commission decided to appoint, for a three-year period, a special rapporteur on violence against women, including its causes and consequences. Ms. Radhika Coomaraswamy of Sri Lanka was subsequently appointed Special Rapporteur on violence against women. This appointment came after more than two decades of tireless campaigning by women worldwide. An important step marked by resolution 1994/45 was that, for the first time, Governments were held accountable for acts of violence against women committed by the private individual.

In the same resolution, the Commission invited the Special Rapporteur, in carrying out her mandate, and within the framework of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and all other international human rights instruments, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, inter alia, to recommend measures, at the national, regional and international levels, to eliminate violence against women and its causes, and to remedy its consequences. The Special Rapporteur's mandate includes carrying out field missions, either separately or jointly with other special rapporteurs and working groups, and consulting periodically with the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. In addition, the Commission requested the Secretary-General to ensure that the reports of the Special Rapporteur are brought to the attention of the Commission on the Status of Women.

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