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United Nations: Joint Committee Call to End Harmful Practices Against Women and Children

(Nov. 13, 2014) On November 4, 2014, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and the Committee on the Rights of the Child released a joint recommendation/comment on the obligation of states “to prevent, respond to and eliminate harmful practices, wherever and in whichever form they occur,” that affect “women and children, primarily girls.” (Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women & Committee on the Rights of the Child, Joint General Recommendation/General Comment No. 31 of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and No. 18 of the Committee on the Rights of the Child on Harmful Practices, CEDAW/C/GC/31- CRC/C/GC/18 (Nov. 4, 2014), Introduction.) While the two U.N. bodies, as monitoring organs, have separately addressed these practices in executing their respective mandates, this is reportedly the first time they have collaborated in this manner. (Valerie Howell, UN Committees Outline States’ Obligations to End Harmful Practices Against Womenand Girls, PAPER CHASE (Nov. 6, 2014).)

Objective and Scope of the Joint Recommendation/Comment

The document aims to provide authoritative guidance to the States Parties to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) on legislative, policy, and other measures to take to eliminate the harmful practices, and thus help States parties comply with their obligations under the two Conventions. (Joint General Recommendation/General Comment, supra; CEDAW (adopted on Dec. 18, 1979, and in force on Sept. 3, 1981), Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) website; CRC (adopted on Nov. 20, 1989, and in force on Sept. 2, 1990), OHCHR website.)

Although harmful practices against girls vary across regions and cultures, the document states, “the most prevalent and well documented are female genital mutilation, child and/or forced marriage, polygamy, crimes committed in the name of so-called honour and dowry-related violence.” (Joint General Recommendation/General Comment, supra, ¶ 6.) The joint recommendation/comment echoes both Conventions in deeming the practices violations of human rights. (Id. ¶ 9; Howell, supra.)

Other Features of the Document

The document also provides criteria for determining harmful practices and a holistic framework for dealing with them. The framework covers data collection and monitoring; legislation and its enforcement; prevention of harmful practices by establishing rights-based social and cultural norms, empowering women and girls, developing capacity for involvement by professional groups (e.g., social workers, immigration authorities, police, judges) , and awareness-raising; and protective measures and responsive services. (Joint General Recommendation/General Comment, supra, ¶¶ 30-86.)

Another section of the joint recommendation/comment encourages States parties to ratify the Optional Protocol to CEDAW (1999) and the Optional Protocols to CRC on the sale of children, on child prostitution and child pornography (2000), on the involvement of children in armed conflict (2000), and on a communications procedure (2011). (Id. ¶ 89.)

The document also calls upon the States parties to “review and modify or withdraw reservations” to articles 2 (elimination of discrimination against women), 5 (elimination of prejudices and customary practices based on notions of either sex’s inferiority or superiority or stereotyped roles) and 16 (elimination of discrimination against women in marriage- and family-related matters) of CEDAW, and articles 19 (the obligation to protect children from all forms of physical and mental violence, abuse, etc.) and 24(3) (the obligation to take all effective and appropriate measures to abolish traditional practices prejudicial to children’s health) of CRC. (Id. ¶ 90.) The CEDAW Committee considers reservations to these articles incompatible in principle with the object and purpose of the Conventions and therefore impermissible under CEDAW’s article 28(2) and CRC’s article 51(2), disallowing any such reservations. (Id.)