VIOLATING CHILDREN'S RIGHTS: Harmful practices based on tradition, culture, religion or superstition

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All violations of children’s rights can legitimately be described as harmful practices, but the common characteristic of the violations highlighted in this report is that they are based on tradition, culture, religion or superstition and are perpetrated and actively condoned by the child’s parents or significant adults within the child’s community. Indeed, they often still enjoy majority support within communities or whole states.

Harmful practices based on tradition, culture, religion or superstition are often perpetrated against very young children or infants, who are clearly lacking the capacity to consent or to refuse consent themselves. Assumptions of parental powers or rights over their children allow the perpetration of a wide range of these practices, many by parents directly, some by other individuals with parents’ assumed or actual consent. Yet the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), ratified by almost every state, favours the replacement of the concept of parental “rights” over children with parental “responsibilities,” ensuring that the child’s best interests are parents’ “basic concern” (Article 18). 

Many of the practices identified in this report involve gross and unlawful discrimination against groups of children, including gender discrimination, and in particular discrimination against children with disabilities. Some are based on tradition and/or superstition, some on religious belief, others on false information or beliefs about child development and health. Many involve extreme physical violence and pain leading, in some cases intentionally, to death or serious injury. Others involve mental violence. All are an assault on the child’s human dignity and violate universally agreed international human rights standards. 

The International NGO Council on Violence against Children believes the continued legality and social and cultural acceptance of a very wide range of these practices in many states illustrates a devastating failure of international and regional human rights mechanisms to provoke the necessary challenge, prohibition and elimination. Comprehensive, children’s rights-based analysis and action are needed now. Above all, there must be an assertion of every state’s immediate obligation to ensure all children their right to full respect for their human dignity and physical integrity. 

This short report is designed to complement other current activities in the UN system that are focusing on harmful practices and children and will hopefully lead to more effective action. The UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative on Violence against Children, Marta Santos Pais, held an International Expert Consultation on the issue in June 2012 in Addis Ababa in which the International NGO Council was represented and prepared a submission. Two UN Treaty Bodies, the Committee on the Rights of the Child and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), are collaborating in drafting a General Comment/General Recommendation on harmful practices. 

The International NGO Council believes that the continuing legal and social acceptance of these violations and the slow progress in identifying and effectively addressing them are symptomatic of children’s low status, as possessions rather than individuals and rights-holders, in societies across all regions. The oft-quoted mantra of the UN Study was “No violence against children is justifiable; all violence against children is preventable.” Tragically, many adults are still justifying even extreme violence, both physical and mental, on spurious grounds of tradition, culture or religion. 

The report first looks at the definition and scope of harmful traditional, cultural and religious practices violating children’s rights. Section 3 outlines the human rights context for their prohibition and elimination. Section 4 lists practices identified through a call for evidence issued by the International NGO Council earlier in 2012 and additional desk research. It also provides some examples of legal and other measures already taken to challenge and eliminate them. Section 5 provides recommendations for action by states, UN and UN-related agencies, INGOs, NGOs, national human rights institutions and others. 


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