Module 1

Introduction to Harmful Practices

By the end of the module, you will know what harmful practices are, the causations, the historical context and further information about individual harmful practices.

1.1 What are Harmful practices?

Definition and criteria for harm

The United Nations (UN) definition:
Harmful practices are persistent practices and behaviours that are grounded on discrimination on the basis of sex, gender, age and other grounds as well as multiple and/or intersecting forms of discrimination that often involve violence and cause physical and/or psychological harm or suffering

The harm that these practices cause to victims/survivors surpasses the immediate physical and mental health consequences. Often, they have the purpose or effect of impairing the recognition, enjoyment and exercise of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of women, men & children.

There are hundreds of harmful practices. An exhaustive list of practices does not exist and the types of practices undertaken are evolving, and new ones are emerging.

Whilst there are many forms of parenting practices which could be deemed as causing harm to children, according to the UN, practices should meet the following criteria to be deemed a harmful practice:

They deny a person their dignity or integrity

They discriminate on a protected characteristic and result in negative consequences for an individual or group, which can cause physical, psychological, economic or social harm or violence and thereby limiting the individual or group to reach their full potential

They are reinforced by gender based ideologies and the perceived superiority of men over women

They are imposed on women, men and children by family or community members, or society as a whole - regardless of whether the victim provides full, free and informed consent.

The History of Harmful Practices

Harmful practices impair the recognition, enjoyment and exercise of human rights.

Harmful practices pre-date religion, and have existed for centuries across the world. For example, FGM is thought to have dated back to the 5th Century BC.

Throughout history, harmful practices have largely emerged in response to ideas associated with ‘control’ and in particular around sex and gender stereotyped roles. Some harmful practices have emerged, or even been exacerbated by issues such as the climate crisis, conflict and displacement inside or outside a person's own country.

Globally, the prevalence of harmful practices is unknown. It is important to note that there are barriers to reporting harmful practices, one of which is that reporting could result in further abuse and thus the need to respond to such cases must be trauma informed focused to minimise any further harm.

Whilst harmful practices can and do affect boys and men, for example girls and boys are equally at risk of witchcraft related accusations, they disproportionately affect girls and women. Violence against women and girls is a global issue yet to be tackled due to societal attitudes around gender norms. Patriarchal values in particular have reinforced the low status of girls and women in society and increased the likelihood of the perpetration of violence. According to the World Health Organisation, gender inequity and early subordination of females places adult females (in particular) at greater risk of intimate partner violence (IPV - physical, sexual, emotional).

Watch this short animation to consolidate some of your learning. Pause the video at any point to digest the informaton and take notes:

Global statistics on intimate partner violence:

Globally, 1 in 3 women worldwide have experienced physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner or sexual violence (IPV) by any perpetrator in their lifetime.

The odds of IPV increases when a woman has undergone FGM

Violence against women increases during emergencies, including pandemics

IPV can have severe impacts on a woman’s physical, psychological and emotional health and wellbeing

137 women across the world are killed by a member of their own family every day

Globally, 7% of women have been sexually assaulted by someone other than a partner

When considering harmful practices, there is a strongly held belief in many communities that women are representatives of and carry with them their entire family's honour, and therefore it is the responsibility of men to ensure that they do not transgress family or community boundaries of acceptable behaviour. Such transgression can lead to dishonour, shame, and can result in violence.

It is therefore essential that professionals view and assess attitudes towards girls and women in risk assessments, particularly when assessing risk around harmful practices.

Where did the term come from?

Harmful practices have often been referred to as either ‘harmful traditional practices’ or ‘harmful cultural practices’

The word ‘traditional’ has been conflated with culture. By associating the two together, we assume that harmful practices are only practiced by minority ethnic groups, when in fact harmful practices are universal - every person has culture.

The word ‘tradition’ is also linked to a person’s identity, and as such can lead to individuals feeling targeted, creating an environment where challenging the practice becomes difficult.

By framing the practice as ‘traditional’ also implies that violence against women and girls is an accepted norm, making it difficult to understand and challenge

The word ‘traditional’ also ‘ghettoises’ the practices, and implies that they only take place in 'under privileged', 'disadvantaged groups', or within the 'global south'

Removing the term ‘traditional’ and simply referring to them as Harmful Practices enables us to understand and challenge harmful practices within a human rights framework.

What causes harmful practices to emerge?

Causes of harmful practices according to the UN are multi-dimensional. They include:

Issues around the stereotyped sex and gender based roles

The presumed superiority or inferiority of either of the sexes

Attempts to exert control over the bodies of girls and women

Social inequalities

The prevalence of male dominated power structures, or the need to preserve them

It is important that practitioners bear in mind the ever evolving nature of harmful practices, and how the world, trends, and changes in digital and technology may affect the landscape.

1.2 Examples of Harmful Practices

What causes harmful practices to emerge?
So-called 'Honour' related abuse

The concept of ‘honour’ is for some communities deemed to be extremely important. To compromise a family’s ‘honour’ is to bring dishonour and shame and this can have severe consequences. The punishment for bringing dishonour can be emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, family disownment and in some cases murder.

Dowry violence

Any act of violence, harassment or abuse associated with the giving or receiving of dowry (payment of currency, property, gold, land etc.) at any time before, during or after the marriage.


The practice of magic, especially black magic & the use of spells leading to the abuse of children and adults due to a percieved need to remove evil spirits.

FGM (female genital mutilation)

Partial to total removal of the external genitalia for non-medical reasons.

Breast flattening

Process during which a young (pre)pubescent girls’ breasts are ironed, massaged, flattened and/or pounded down over a period of time (sometimes years) in order for the breasts to disappear or delay the development of the breasts entirely.

Forced Marriage/Early forced marriage

The marriage of two individuals without one or both's consent, or where a child under the legal age (under 18 years) is forced to marry, sometimes referred to as “child marriage”.

Menstruation Ostracism

The isolation of girls/women menstruating due to beliefs that they will bring the family bad fortune or ill health.

Sex selective abortion/Femicide

The practice of terminating a pregnancy based upon the predicted sex of the infant, sometimes referred to as ‘son preference’.


Where the killing of children is believed to bring supernatural benefits or the use of their body parts is believed to produce potent magical remedies.


Etching or cutting into the skin tissue to leave permanent marks which is sometimes done as a rite of passage into adulthood, as a sign of status and beauty and also to link individuals to tribes.

Forced Feeding

The over-feeding of girls and women in the name of beauty and to increase any potential bride price. This is also related to size being correlated with wealth and success in adults.

Hijama in children

Where blood is drawn by vacuum from small skin incisions.

Food taboos

Restriction of the diet of infants, girls and women, These taboos are often based on false superstitious beliefs concerning the negative health and social consequences of eating certain foods. Pregnant women are required to abstain from certain foods/nutrients, resulting in poor nutrition, starvation, and increased labour risks. These taboos also dictate what and when to start feeding the infant, resulting in the denial of important nutrients.

Virginity testing

The test involves checking to see if a girl’s hymen is intact. It can occur individually, or in groups as part of large ceremonies. Virginity testing is often undertaken as part of the conditions of marriage and bride price or dowry. Some believe that virginity testing is a protective action that encourages girls to remain virgins, and that in turn will protect them from sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, and pregnancy.

Son preference

The belief that boys have more value than girls and therefore there is a preference for sons, leading in extreme circumstances to femicide. This can also be where boys are socialised to be superior to girls or where preference is given to boys over girls in access to education.

Blood feuds

A blood feud is a long-lasting disagreement between two or more groups of people, particularly family groups. Blood feuds often involve members of each group fighting with or murdering with members of the other to settle a dispute.

Food taboos

Food restrictions placed generally on women and children. It is a traditional way of managing rare, tasty and expensive foods such as eggs, meats and fish, and can result in those it is perpetrated against suffering malnutritions, infections and other health issues.

Corrective rape

Where one or more people are raped because of their perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. The common intended consequence of the rape by the perpetrator is to turn the person heterosexual or to enforce conformity with gender stereotypes.

Virgin myths

Some young girls are raped because of the myth that having sex with a virgin girl will cure illness, including HIV, or increase material wealth. One particularly vulnerable group to this practice is girls with albinism, who may be at risk of rape because of a similar misguided beliefs that having sex with them can cure HIV/AIDS and that they cannot conceive.

Witchcraft accusations against children

Some children are thought to be born witches and others become witches. Children are often accused of witchcraft by adults who have close relationships with them, such as parents, step-parents, other relatives, or pastors, for example. A child who is accused of witchcraft is subject to both physical and psychological violence by family, community members, and religious leaders. These children are stigmatized and discriminated against, are mistreated, abused, ostracized, and abandoned. They may be taken to churches for “deliverance” and can become victims of extreme violence, including severe beatings, being burnt, poisoned, or even buried alive, and killed. Even if the child is not physically harmed, the allegation that they are a witch or possessed of evil spirits can cause lasting trauma.


Food and nutrition, both quantity and quality, are withheld from daughters, younger children, or stepchildren in favour of sons, elder siblings, or biological children.


Scratching, etching, burning / branding, or superficially cutting designs, pictures, or words into the skin as a permanent body modification.

Blood letting

The withdrawal of blood from a person to prevent or cure illness and disease


Temporary marriage - a man is allowed to marry a woman for a period of months or years.

1.3 Harmful Practices in the West

Understanding the narrative

The current media, policy and legislative context creates a narrative in which harmful practices are portrayed as issues only affecting minority ethnic communities in the UK. It is important to recognise that non-minority ethnic groups in the UK are also affected by harmful practices. Such narratives ‘ghettoise’ the issues, and professionals risk imposing ethnocentric views which rank their own cultural beliefs as superior to others, (Korbin, 2007). In reality, the UK has had a long history of harmful practices. A harmful practice known to be performed in the UK in the Victorian era was clitoridectomy (removal of the clitoris of a woman). Victorian surgeons were known to perform clitoridectomy’s to cure epilepsy, nymphomania and hysteria. (Black, 1997). Forced marriages were also common in Britain, and were enacted to protect the reputations of women who were pregnant outside of wedlock, to unite families, build alliances and armies. Unlike our current understanding of forced marriage and so-called 'honour' related abuse, these practices were not labelled as ‘cultural’, but undeniably reflect the oppression of women as a result of patriarchal ideologies.

Moreover, some harmful practices in the west are not viewed as being as such because they are framed under the guise of being consumer ‘choice’, 'medicine’ or ‘fashion’ and so create an illusion of acceptability, Jeffreys (2005) for example argues that if practices such as FGM are seen as harmful when performed by one group, why should other practices on the other side of the continuum in the west, such as labia plasty or ‘designer vaginas’ evade being labelled as ‘cultural’?

Other harmful practices in the west Jeffrey’s notes are:

Forced marriages

Professionals must be more critical of their stance in relation to addressing the impact of patriarchy on society, and the images and narratives placed on femininity. Acknowledging that harmful practices exist in non-minority ethnic communities is one step towards removing the ‘otherness’ of the issue. Professionals must develop self-awareness and reflection in practice as standard to improve the UK’s strategy in ending harmful practices which are detrimental to the health and exercise of the rights of girls, women, boys and men.


FGM Chapter 1 Assessment

1 / 5

The United Nations describes harmful practices as __________ practices and behaviours that are grounded on _____________ on the basis of sex, gender and/or other multiple and/or intersecting forms of discrimination that often involve ________ and cause _______ and/or psychological harm or suffering.

2 / 5

Harmful practices pre-date religion.

3 / 5

What are some of the root causes of harmful practices? (select all that apply)

4 / 5

Which of the following are considered harmful practices? (Select all that apply)

5 / 5

Why don’t we refer to harmful practices as ‘harmful traditional’ practices? (Select all that apply)

Your score is

The average score is 62%


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