As a WomanStats coder I have read and coded data on a variety of topics, including harmful traditional practices. Reading through these accounts and the debilitating effects these practices sometimes have on girls and women angers me and drives me to find an end to these practices.
However, when I think about the ramifications of trying to end these practices, I have often thought about the question of culture. If these practices are part of a specific culture, is it right to push my values on a society and advocate for an end to these practices? Where is the line between ending harmful practices and what should be preserved because it is part of culture?
For one of our WomanStats readings, we read Susan Olkin’s book Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? in which she explores the effects of multiculturalism. One of the conclusions of her analysis is that some group rights, usually for minority groups, will in fact be harmful for women. Reading her perspective helped me to realize that invoking the culture card in order to allow harmful traditional practices to continue is wrong and it can ultimately be damaging for women.
This concept was further reinforced when I had the opportunity to attend a side event during the Human Rights Council on harmful traditional practices. Women from many countries throughout Africa as well as representatives from various NGOs gathered to present their views on harmful traditional practices ranging from female genital mutilation (FGM) to widowhood rites.
Although it was acknowledged that culture and religion are often invoked as reasons for why these practices continue, it was discussed that there are other factors contributing to the perpetuation of these practices. Speakers at the panel discussed some of the underlying causes driving the continuation of harmful traditional practices and these include poverty, unequal access to education, unequal employment opportunities, and lack of enforcement of laws prohibiting these practices.
The panel concluded that it is important to address these underlying factors in order bring these harmful traditional practices to an end. Even though culture and religion are often invoked to protect these practices, this is not a reason to protect these harmful practices. When it comes to the question of protecting culture, I agree that it is important to keep in tact aspects of culture that are good, but ultimately it is important to bring to an end those practices which are harmful and destructive to any individual.