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Schoolgirls in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
GPE/Federico Scoppa
Girls & Women

Harmful Practices Against Girls Will Worsen Without Action: UNFPA


Why Global Citizens Should Care:
Harmful practices exist across cultures and stop young girls from reaching their full potential all around the world. Protecting young girls from going down a path to extreme poverty will require a collective effort. You can join us and take action on this issue here.

Hundreds of thousands of girls worldwide are harmed daily, and the people closest to them are allowing it to happen, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

The situation will only escalate without urgent intervention, the organization warned in its State of World Population 2020 report released on Tuesday.

The report, entitled “Against My Will,” analyzes 19 harmful practices with an emphasis on female genital mutilation (FGM), child marriage, and son preference, and offers solutions for how to address them.

“Harmful practices against girls cause profound and lasting trauma, robbing them of their right to reach their full potential,” UNFPA Executive Director Natalia Kanem said in a statement released to Global Citizen.

“The pandemic both makes our job harder and more urgent as so many more girls are now at risk.”

The report found that parents who condone harmful practices often mean well for their children. 

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For example, families might see child marriage as a way to protect daughters from sexual violence or stigma if they experience early pregnancies. Parents often have their daughters undergo FGM to ensure they are accepted by their future husbands or society. 

And preferring to have sons instead of daughters is common in communities where boys are expected to care for their parents or maintain the family name.

Good intentions are not enough to protect young girls, however — especially when harmful practices put them at risk of missing school or experiencing health problems, Kanem said in the report.

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Harmful practices are often used to control women’s bodies and strip them of their agency, the report pointed out.

Many communities view FGM as a practice to suppress female sexuality, enhance men’s sexual pleasure, or prevent infidelity. Child marriage is also a tactic to maintain a girl’s purity for her husband. Son preference, meanwhile, robs mothers of the opportunity to have control over their fertility.

All types of harmful practices exist in every culture, country, and across socioeconomic backgrounds, the report stressed. 

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Son preference, which might motivate a family to undergo a sex-selective abortion, has amounted to the deficit of 140 million females.

FGM and child marriage are on the rise due to population growth in countries where these practices are common. Nearly 4.1 million girls are at risk of FGM in 2020 and 1 in 5 marriages worldwide involves a child bride. 

Even more girls are likely undergoing FGM and entering child marriages due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which is preventing programs to eliminate the practices from running. A year delay in programs to end child marriage in combination with economic crises could cause 13 million additional child marriages in the next decade. 

There is already a noticeable uptick in child marriage in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Kasai Central and Kasai regions, according to the report. In Tanzania, FGM is being performed in large numbers, UNFPA partner organizations have found.

UNFPA is hopeful that harmful practices can be put to an end if social norms based on discrimination against women are addressed. The organization released a document to help organizations and communities achieve gender equality. Improving girls’ well-being and health will require a collective effort and cannot be done with a one-size-fits-all approach, a UNFPA expert advised.