Note: Sensitive issues of Sexual Health and Reproductive Rights discussed in this blog post.
The Charter of the United Nations includes among its basic principles the achievement of international cooperation in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion (Art. 1, para. 3). Tradition and religion play into it like this:
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 female genital mutilation (FGM); forced feeding of women; early marriage; the various taboos or practices which prevent women from controlling their own fertility; nutritional taboos and traditional birth practices; son preference and its implications for the status of the girl child; female infanticide; early pregnancy; and dowry price. Despite their harmful nature and their violation of international human rights laws, such practices persist because they are not questioned and takeo n an aura of morality in the eyes of those practising them. (https:/www.un.org/ruleoflaw/files/FactSheet23en.pdf)
Since the very first Commission on the Status of Women, Harmful Practices have been examined under the specific lens of Harmful Practices against women. The two chief practices that I have been learning about and for which we still advocate against are Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and Child Marriage.
Because these harmful practices are based in tradition, culture, and even sometimes religion, they are quite difficult to “Legislate out.” Even when laws and regulations are agreed to at the State level, even when penalties are placed on the perpetrators, these traditions are still being carried out at the family and local level.
For example, on my visit to the Eritrean Ministry I learned that FGM has been outlawed for many years, but devastatingly, over 87% of Eritrean girls are still being cut.
At another event, a female Kenyan government official passionately decried child “Marriage” and said we need to label it as what it really is: child rape and enslavement. She explained that marriage is a consensual agreement, and in child marriage, there is no consent on behalf of the bride. Child “Marriage” leads to early pregnancy in teen years and even in childhood and always results in higher infant mortality rates and death under 5 rates. Girls forced into marriage do not continue their education, and most face devastating health conditions for the remainder of their life because their bodies were not ready for child bearing. One such issue is Obstetric Fistula, which can cause incontinence and is very painful
In an emotional presentation about such harmful practices, I heard from three different countries:
Youth Champion Advocate and nurse Smriti Thapa explained how her nursing clients were between 15 and 20 and typically on their 3rd pregnancy. She told about “Kamla”, a 16 year old who suffered the loss of her stillborn baby through a failed home delivery after which she hemorrhaged and in emergency surgery her uterus was removed. She had been forced into a marriage with a 30-year-old. She was the second child wife to this man, who had lost his first young wife to child birth. Ms Thapa explained that these young women have no control over their bodies and no access to contraceptives.
In Pakistan, marriage is glorified by the young girls who look with excitement to the day when they get to wear the beautiful traditional wedding clothes and jewelry. The problem is that these young women’s bodies are not ready for childbearing, and that they do not know Basic Life Skills or understand things like birth spacing and contraception. Pakistan is trying to curb this through innovative sexual education programs and teaching reproductive rights to girls and boys at an early age. It’s a “long game” approaching it this way, but through the education of the youngest generation, Pakistan hopes to change gender norms and challenge tradition. Pakistan is serious about this education: they will be teaching basic life skills and the consequences of early marriage to 4700 schools through training 1000 master teachers in the next 60 days! Bravo, Pakistan.
Auxilia Ponga works with faith-based communities to champion women. She is working on improving maternal and child health. Her approach is important to challenging traditional practices as she works with tribal chiefs and religious leaders to teach about the dangers of child marriage. Since focusing on the local, rural areas, the effort has lowered the incidence of child marriage from 42% to 31%. Many times, families feel forced to sell their children into marriage (or trafficking, which is another topic altogether) because they can’t afford the school fees or even afford to feed their children. So Ms. Ponga is working with faith-based organizations to pay school fees, lessening the chance that girls will be married for financial relief. They have raised awareness that Child Marriages are more subject to violence; and have begun teaching life skills and rights. They empower the girls in school through comprehensive education in sexual education. An important lesson learned from Zambia is that boys must be taught this information and these skills as well as girls, as teaching only the girls has not been as effective.
Though learning about harmful practices is devastating, I see hope in the unique approaches these countries and organizations are trying. My delegation, Ecumenical Women, is a coalition of many denominations across the globe who recognize the importance of Sexual Health and Reproductive Rights, and we are unique among the religious organizations as we advocate language for the final statement that will encourage education and empowerment for women and girls in respect to their reproductive rights.
In other panel discussions this week, I have been challenged to begin to consider some of our western practices as harmful as well, as the list of practices has not included some of our long-held rituals of initiation like binge drinking and hazing. I would love to hear what your reactions are to these traditional practices. Please also take a moment to consider what harmful practices your own traditions, cultures, and religions support without giving thought to the long-term consequences.