UNA-NCA Snapshots
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UNA-NCA Snapshots

UNFPA’s 2020 State of the World Population Report: Highlights

By Tina Maglakelidze, UNA-NCA Research Assistant

Mothers and pregnant women wait during a medical mission organized by the UNFPA Cainta, in Rizal province, Philippines, on Oct. 8, 2009. Source: AFP/ Getty Images

The United Nations Fund for Population (UNFPA) is the UN’s sexual and reproductive health agency. On 30 June 2020, UNFPA launched its State of the World Population Report which provides insight into three of the most common practices that harm women and girls worldwide. The report also contextualizes the role of international and national legislation in the fight against these harmful practices and emphasizes the power of younger generations to accelerate the global campaign against gender inequality.

While the prevalence of harmful practices perpetrated against women has slowed down, the actual number of girls subjected to harm continues to increase due to population growth. To realize the UN’s goal of complete eradication of harmful practices against women and girls by 2030, efforts must be reinvigorated at all levels.

What is a harmful practice?

It is a practice that has the purpose or effect of “impairing the recognition, enjoyment and exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms of women and children.” In other words, harmful practices limit the capacities of women and girls to participate fully in society and to reach their full potential. They adversely impact the dignity of women and girls and reify discriminatory gender barriers in all spheres of social and economic life.

Harmful practices are widespread and occur in both developing and developed countries alike.

These practices extend beyond violations of a girl’s bodily integrity and cascade into forms of harm that are immeasurable, reinforcing the very gender stereotypes and inequalities that gave rise to the harm in the first place.

What are the most common harmful practices?

Three of the most common harmful practices are female genital mutilation, child marriage, and son preference.

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) refers to an “invasive procedure which entails partial or total removal of female external genitalia or other injury to female genital organs for non-medical reasons.” Although FGM is most widely associated with parts of Africa, it is a global practice and occurs in communities around the world, across different religions and ethnicities. The practice itself is grounded in a variety of misguided beliefs such that FGM improves fertility, enhances sexual pleasure for men, subdues sexual deviancy, and prevents infidelity. With FGM comes a series of both short-term and long-term potential consequences, ranging from fatal infections to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Child Marriage is commonly imposed on girls by members of her family and community regardless of whether or not they provide full, free and informed consent. In addition to increasing a girl’s likelihood of dropping out of school, child marriage has been reported to result in self-harm by immolation or suicide as well domestic violence, including both physical and psychological. Research also shows that girls who are married early are inclined to perpetuate traditional gender roles and to transmit these stereotypes to their children (Asadullah and Wahhaj, 2019).

Son Preference is the product of many forms of gender discrimination and refers to the societal practice of ascribing more value to sons than daughters. While it may be difficult to measure the full scope of its consequences, son preference is a harmful practice in that it fuels a cycle of violence against women and perpetuates their disenfranchisement. Gender-biased sex selection includes the termination of fetuses determined to be female. Gender-based sex selection and postnatal sex selection has also resulted in over 140 million females considered missing today (Bongaarts and Guilmoto, 2015). Other insidious manifestations of son preference include shorter breastfeeding times and poorer nutrition for daughters as well as fewer inoculations and inadequate education.

All three of these practices are strongly linked to sexual and reproductive health and each further entrenches cycles of gender inequality and violence against women and girls. For instance, gender-based sex selection can distort the composition of a country’s population for generations and in societies where there are many more men than women of marriageable age, women are reported to be more vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violence (Diamond-Smith and Rudolph, 2018).

On the surface, and within the context of some traditions, religions, and cultures some of these harmful practices are considered well-intentioned. For example, the family of a girl may genuinely believe that by marrying her off at a young age they are helping secure her financial stability or shield her from sexual abuse. In some cases, performing female genital mutilation may ensure a girl’s acceptance as an adult within her community. Regardless of intentions, these behaviors are rooted in the assumption that the rights of a woman or a girl are less than those of men and boys. This fallacy, in turn, constrains the autonomy of women and girls and increases the likelihood that decisions are made for them. Thus, the campaign to protect women and girls from harmful practices must begin with changes in the mindsets that still sanction violence against women and girls.

Progress is slow but possible…

Passing laws is a critical first step against harmful practices but legislation is not a panacea. In Trinidad and Tobago, efforts to end child marriage began nearly 30 years ago. The movement gained momentum four years ago when a number of grassroots organizations joined forces “in a true kind of cross-class, cross-race coalition, cross country coalition” and successfully advocated for a ban on child marriage, culminating in the 2017 law. The official ban has not led to the eradication of this harmful practice as men continue to corral young girls into exploitative partnerships. Dr. Gabrielle Hosein, director of the Institute of Gender and Development Studies at the University of the West Indies, explains that, “while we have abolished child marriage, we have not abolished predatory masculinity.”

Similarly, FGM continues to take place in countries that have adopted legislation prohibiting the practice (WHO, 2020). Nevertheless, research shows that programs that empower communities and change social norms have resulted in the long-term abandonment of FGM. The UN holds that the complete eradication of Female Genital Mutilation by 2030 is still within reach if such efforts are supported and accelerated. Specifically, if successful community-driven efforts are scaled up and fully funded, this harmful practice would be disbanded in 31 countries by 2030 (UNFPA, 2020). Working in tandem with legislation and policy, public education and community programs to raise awareness are critical in transforming the attitudes that fuel harmful practices.

The report draws additional hope from the gradual shifts in public opinion, perhaps most evident in the younger generations of women and men. More and more young people are becoming effective advocates for abandoning harmful practices and ending gender discrimination.

More aware of their rights, younger generations of girls are rejecting harmful practices like never before (UNICEF, 2020). In countries affected by FGM, seven in 10 girls and women believe the practice should be abolished. Some surveys find that adolescent girls are 50% more likely than older women to oppose the practice (UNICEF, 2020) and others indicate that younger generations are more likely to reject son preference in China and elsewhere (WHO, 2011). More men and boys are increasingly challenging gender inequality and advocating changes that benefit everyone (Commission on the Status of Women, 2020).

2020: The Start of a Decade of Action

This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women. A new generation of ‘digitally native’ feminist advocates are speaking out around the world. Their energy must be mobilized so that it propels the global movement towards gender equality forward.

Multiple international human rights treaties and agreements, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, obligate States to act to stop harmful practices perpetrated against women and girls. While formally banning these practices by law both at the international and state-level is an essential first step, progress is contingent on changes in people’s perceptions. Dr. Natalia Kanem, Executive Director of UNFPA, affirms that during this decade of action, it is the time to move beyond pledges and resolutions.

To reach the UN objective of eradicating harmful practices, attitudes and social norms embedded in economic, legal, healthcare, and education systems must first undergo serious transformation.

When girls and women are taught that their bodies exist primarily for the pleasure of, or control by, men — either through lived experience or through socialized gender norms– they are less likely to know their rights.

One third of women will experience physical or sexual abuse at some point in their lives (Commission on the Status of Women, 2020). Around the world, survivors are among the loudest voices demanding the dismantlement of harmful practices. Young feminists are at the forefront of the campaign for systemic change and gender equity (Commission on the Status of Women, 2020). Governments, international and nongovernmental organizations must pool efforts to invest in this younger generation and equip them with the resources needed to bolster the global movement. Harnessing the momentum generated by younger generations of feminist activists, the international community must collectively defy the forces that perpetuate harm and deny women and girls their rights to chart their own futures.

A Call to Action 

The UNFPA works to end preventable maternal death and eliminate gender-based violence and harmful practices like child marriage and female genital mutilation. For a fourth consecutive year, the United States plans to withhold funding from UNFPA. Urge your Congressional Representatives to support U.S. Representative Chrissy Houlahan’s (D-PA) bill, the Support UNFPA Funding Act (H.R. 4722).

The UNFPA 2020 State of the World Population Report can be found in full here: https://www.unfpa.org/swop-2020

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