People's Stories Women's Rights

Five things you didn’t know about practices that harm girls
by Dr. Natalia Kanem
Executive Director, UNFPA
June 2020
Every day, hundreds of thousands of girls around the world are harmed physically or psychologically, with the full knowledge and consent of their families, friends and communities. And without urgent action, the situation is likely to worsen.
These are the findings of UNFPA’s flagship 2020 State of World Population report, released today. The report examines the origin and extent of harmful practices around the world, and what must be done to stop them.
It identifies 19 harmful practices – ranging from breast ironing to virginity testing – that are considered to be human rights violations. But it focuses on three practices in particular that are widespread and persistent, despite near-universal condemnation: female genital mutilation (FGM), child marriage and son preference.
Below are five unexpected, and critical, takeaways from the report.
1. People who subject their daughters to these practices are often well intentioned.
Child marriage, FGM and son preference – which can be expressed as gender-biased sex selection or postnatal sex selection – cause profound and lasting harms. They can even be deadly.
Yet these practices are generally not performed out of malice. Rather, they are seen as being in the best interest of the family, or in the best interest of the girl herself.
Child marriage may be intended to secure a girl's future by making her husband’s family responsible for her care. It may be seen as a way to protect her from sexual violence, or as a way to safeguard her reputation if she becomes pregnant. FGM is often performed to ensure a girl is accepted by her future spouse or by the broader community. And families may choose to have boys over girls in communities where sons alone are tasked with caring for their ageing parents or carrying on the family name.“Good intentions, however, mean little to the girl who must abandon school and her friends to be forcibly wed, or to the girl who faces a lifetime of health problems because of mutilation from a harmful rite of passage,” said UNFPA’s Executive Director, Dr. Natalia Kanem, in her foreword to the report.
2. Harmful practices are rooted in gender inequality and serve the purpose of controlling girls’ bodies, sexuality or sexual desires.
Harmful practices are often tools of control over women’s sexuality and fertility.
In many places, FGM is thought to supress female sexuality, prevent infidelity or enhance sexual pleasure for men. Though it is sometimes considered a religious obligation, this is “to mask what is at the core, which is controlling women’s sexuality,” said Dr. Hania Sholkamy, an anthropologist at the American University in Cairo’s Social Research Center, who was interviewed in the report.
Child marriage, too, is frequently motivated by the desire to preserve a girl’s virginity for her husband. And son preference, when it is expressed as gender-biased sex selection, is an exertion of social and family preferences over a woman’s fertility.
3. Harmful practices are widespread, cutting across countries, cultures, religions, ethnicities and socioeconomic levels.
Child marriage, FGM and son preference take place around the world. The report includes accounts of child marriage taking place in the United States, stories about FGM from Colombia, Indonesia and Tanzania, and accounts of son preference in Azerbaijan and India, for instance.
Globally, the number of girls and women affected by these practices is staggering – and even, in some cases, growing. This year, 4.1 million girls are at risk of FGM. One in five marriages today involves a child bride. And son preference has resulted in a deficit of some 140 million females.
Although efforts to end harmful practices have seen success, the number of girls subjected to child marriage and FGM is believed to be increasing overall because of population growth in countries with a high prevalence of these practices.
4. The COVID-19 pandemic is likely worsening child marriage and FGM
The pandemic has vast impacts on the lives of girls and their families – from economic hardships and school closures to the loss of access to health services and community programmes.
There is little firm data on how the pandemic is affecting the exercise of harmful practices, but an analysis by UNFPA, Avenir Health, Johns Hopkins University (USA) and Victoria University (Australia) projected that both FGM and child marriage could significantly increase.
If the world sees a two-year delay in the implementation of programmes designed to eliminate FGM, an estimated 2 million additional cases of FGM could occur over the next decade that otherwise could have been averted. A one-year delay in programmes to end child marriage, coupled with the pandemic-caused economic downturn, could result in 13 million additional child marriages taking place over the next decade, researchers found.
UNFPA is also starting to see some preliminary indications that both FGM and child marriage are increasing, in at least some places.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, experts have noted a significant increase in child marriage in Kasai Central and Kasai regions; an assessment of the influence of the pandemic on this trend is underway by local NGOs. And in Tanzania, two of UNFPA’s partners have reported seeing FGM performed in large numbers even though the annual “cutting season” usually does not start until December.
5. We know how to end these harmful practices – and this is the moment to do it
Despite these challenges, the world has seen many promising signs and initiatives showing that it is possible to end harmful practices.
Experience in countries like the Republic of Korea shows that raising the status of women and girls, alongside policy and other changes, can end son preference, for example. And countries like Trinidad and Tobago have had recent success implementing legislative bans on child marriage.
But lasting solutions will require changes to social norms rooted in gender inequality.
UNFPA has released a document “How Changing Social Norms is Crucial to Achieving Gender Equality” designed to help organizations and communities achieve social norms change at scale, and therefore achieve gender equality.
“Beyond providing information and creating spaces for discussion, there is a need to collectively deliberate and explicitly agree to improve the health and well-being of girls and communities, which will support the movement to end the harmful and discriminatory norms,” said Nafissatou Diop, a UNFPA expert in the area of harmful practices and culture. “Context is crucial. There is a no one-size-fits-all approach.”
Right now is the moment to initiate these changes, as the world undergoes seismic shifts due to the pandemic and its social and economic fallout, she added.
“We see how the behaviour of one person can make a difference, how groups of people adopting a certain behaviour influences others,” Ms. Diop said. “We are seeing community influencers from different walks of life, not just political leaders and prominent figures, leading change. Not only does this give us hope, it also proves that collective decisions to shift behaviours can transform norms quickly.”

Visit the related web page

Applying a Gender Lens to COVID-19 Response and Recovery
by Katja Iversen
President and CEO, Women Deliver
May 2020
As the COVID-19 pandemic intensifies around the world, it is clear that if we want to deliver health, wellbeing, and dignity for all, we need a strong gender lens on response and recovery. That's why Women Deliver, together with our partners, has been working to outline key actions that civil society, governments, the private sector, and multilateral organizations should take to address the gendered dimensions of the COVID-19 crisis.
Women Deliver's recommendations to Build Back a Stronger, More Gender-Equal World
Evidence shows that disease outbreak affects women and men differently, that pandemics exacerbate inequalities for girls and women, who are also often the hardest hit, and that women play an outsize role responding to crises, including as frontline healthcare and social workers, caregivers at home, and as mobilizers in their communities.
That's why the world must put a gender lens on the response to COVID-19, to ensure the unique needs of girls and women are addressed, and their unique expertise is leveraged. This includes positioning girls, women, and young people - in all their diversity and in all settings - front and center in the emergency responses, in social and economic recovery efforts, and in how we strengthen our health systems for the long term.
And we must safeguard the progress we've made towards gender equality, including hard won gains for maternal, sexual and reproductive health and rights.
Women Deliver recommends the following actions be included as part of COVID-19 response and recovery efforts to build a stronger, more gender-equal world:
1. Apply best practices and a gender lens to all COVID related efforts.
All policies, programs, and investments, including stimulus and recovery packages, must be designed with a gender lens, so they don't overlook or have unintended consequences for girls, women, and gender equality. This approach should include proven best practices such as gender-responsive analysis, budgeting, and auditing processes and a gender marker for tracking.
2. Leverage sex and age-disaggregated data to inform and shape policies and investments.
Initial data indicates that more men than women may be dying from COVID-19, and decision-makers and stakeholders need sex and age-disaggregated data to further understand how this crisis is impacting women and men differently.
This data must be collected, analyzed, and used to inform all policies and investments, and must be available quickly and widely to analyze the impact of interventions and drive informed, timely decisions.
This information must include those who may often be excluded from national data collection efforts, such as refugees, internally displaced people, migrant workers, and people with non-binary gender identities.
3. Meaningfully engage women and young people through partnerships, funding, and leadership positions.
Women and young people - in all their diversity and in all settings - must be meaningfully and authentically engaged in decision-making about their own lives and the communities where they live and work. For an inclusive and representative response and recovery, women-focused and youth-led organizations must be funded and included in partnerships, and all COVID-19 decision-making bodies must embrace diverse and inclusive leadership.
4. Protect and support those on the frontlines of the COVID-19 response - the overwhelming majority of whom are women.
Women are 70% of the health workforce and are leading on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic. Front line responders such as health workers and social service providers must be guaranteed protection, support, and fair compensation. This includes safe working conditions, appropriate equipment, equal and emergency/hazard pay, safe housing, and access to services that reflect their needs as individuals, such as mental health services and childcare.
5. Safeguard maternal, sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), the bedrock of gender equality.
In past pandemics and crises, emergency response has resulted in de-prioritizing and de-funding essential health and social services for girls and women - directly threatening their health and rights. As the world responds to the COVID-19 crisis, funding and access to SRHR, including modern contraception, safe abortion, maternal health services and safe childbirth, as well as telemedicine, must be prioritized. In settings impacted by both COVID-19 and humanitarian crisis, this includes implementing lifesaving activities that uphold SRHR at the outset of all emergencies.
6. Prioritize gender equality in health systems strengthening.
We must rebuild our health systems to ensure they meet the needs and realities of all, including in times of crisis. This includes prioritizing and funding Primary Health Care and Universal Health Coverage grounded in gender equality and human rights, including sexual and reproductive health and rights. Decision makers must examine gender-based differences in health expenditures, disease detection and response, emergency preparedness, research and development, and the health workforce. And health systems must be strengthened to extend to girls and women living in humanitarian settings and to meet the needs of young people.
7. Uphold and fully fund services to reduce gender-based violence.
Data show that gender-based violence like domestic violence is increasing dramatically during the COVID-19 crisis, likely worsened by quarantines and limited mobility that isolate women with their abusers.
Legal and support systems to prevent and respond to gender-based violence, including women's centers, shelters, domestic violence helplines, and legal aid, must continue to operate and expand where needed, and perpetrators must be held accountable.
This includes services for those in living in displacement settings, such as refugee camps, and preventing and ending sexual violence and exploitation.
8. Maintain equitable access to education.
Equal access to education is foundational to girls and adolescents livelihoods and wellbeing, and this pandemic risks reversing years of progress in education equity. School closures can exacerbate gender inequalities, especially for the poorest girls and adolescents who face a greater risk of early and forced marriage and unintended pregnancy during emergencies.
Closed schools likely means girls and adolescents are taking on additional responsibilities at home like looking after siblings or caring for sick relatives, which can lead to them falling behind in school work or dropping out.
All young people must have resources, tools, and social support to remain engaged in learning during school closures and re-enter the formal education system once the crisis has waned.
9. Protect women's economic opportunity and livelihood.
Millions have lost their jobs and livelihood during the COVID-19 crisis, many of them women who are already hard hit by existing inequalities like unequal pay and less access to financial services.
Emergency and stimulus packages as well as long term recovery investments must support and protect women and marginalized people, including forcibly displaced and migrant girls and women who might not be able to access these resources due to their citizenship status.
These investments must include robust investment in social policies and safety nets for those in the formal and informal economies, such as paid sick leave, unemployment benefits, paid family and parental leave, cash transfers, food voucher and food distribution programs, and access to emergency healthcare for everyone.
10. Challenge gender norms to encourage a better balance of household duties and care-taking.
Women traditionally carry the majority of care and labor responsibilities within families, placing them on the frontlines of COVID-19 response at home. Women's traditional role as caregivers makes them more susceptible to infection from sick family members, and increased childcare demands make it difficult to balance work and home responsibilities.
To challenge traditional gender norms and redistribute unpaid care and household labor, leaders should implement social policies such as paternity leave, social programs to encourage male engagement, educational programs in school to promote gender equality, and should model equal roles in their own lives.
We urge civil society, governments, the private sector, and multilateral organizations to use these recommendations and apply a gender lens to all COVID-19 preparedness, response, and recovery efforts. By putting girls and women front and center of these efforts, the world can truly deliver health, wellbeing, and dignity for all.

Visit the related web page

View more stories

Submit a Story Search by keyword and country Guestbook