Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a violation of the human rights of girls and women. This practice usually follows as a social convention; the social pressure to conform to what others do and have been doing is a strong motivation to perpetuate the practice.
News headline, itself is enough to realize how violence against women and girls is widely happening all over the world, on daily basis and despite the entire constitutional and international legislations and human rights standards.
It becomes more crucial if I draw the attention to the aforementioned bullet points facts again, and add that these practices may not only be persecuted or criminalized, also followed proudly, among some communities.
In this paper, I will try to demonstrate human rights references to culture and traditional and cultural practices. I will review International human rights approach, universal values, cultural practices and also human rights obligations in protecting women and girls’ rights.
I will discuss different arguments from both relativistic and universalist approach towards common values and interests and also how human rights would/should respond to harmful cultural traditions and practices. At the end, I will look at the challenges and come up with set of recommendations.
It is commonly said human rights are the rights, one has simply because one is a human being.
Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) along with two International Covenants,  on civil and political rights and on economic, social and cultural rights, are called as core of human rights instruments. According to the text and context of this core, human rights characterized with at least three fundamental elements. Human rights are (a) universal, (b) equal for everyone (c) individual.
It is hugely debatable among legal theorists and philosophers on the core and essence of human rights, but to make it more simple, as R. Martin tried to summarize different arguments, human rights represent many important interests of humans. ’Important’ interests like dignity, security, health, food, shelter, wellbeing and being respected. These commonality and also adoption, ratification and accession to core human rights instruments, might be justify universality of these values and rights, at least in a very general sense.
Human rights are about individuals and protecting them as “moral agents and concerns for them as vulnerable creatures”(Freeman, 2012: 87), which does not mean the community values or personal responsibility, has been ignored. Right to culture, self-determination and right to development are just few examples, which are all respected and supposed to be protected under human rights provisions.
Here I start with defining culture, then speak about shared and common values and needs and later review some challenges raised from relativists against universality of human rights and some responses.
I am following the broad approach to define culture, as Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na`im’s, when he says the term culture, “… in its broadest sense, is the ”totality of values, institutions and forms of behaviour transmitted within a society…”
I talked about universality of human rights briefly. Historically, human beings share and so many common needs by nature. So many physiological and psychological needs, which have to be acknowledged, respected and protected, by the morality behind the human rights values.
On the other hand, as Donnelly argues, concepts like “life, social order, protection from arbitrary rule, prohibition of inhuman and degrading treatment, the guarantee of a place in the life of the community, and access to an equitable share of the means of subsistence are central moral aspirations in nearly all cultures.”
Despite the fact that so many common moral claims and values shared between human rights and cultures, there are clashes as well. Supporters of cultural relativism, community and religion leaders, claim that there is no universal human right. Here is one of the important response to that, ‘universalism, stipulates that some ideals should have universal scope-not all ideals. As such, it is not vulnerable to the objection (O’Neill 1996: 75, 78).
Most of the cultures claim that there are different interpretations of culture. So, in this case, how can they ensure that there is not a culture that believes in universal morality and same human rights values?
‘Most local traditions take themselves to be absolutely, not relatively, true. So in asking us to follow the local, relativism asks us not to follow relativism.’
‘The moral claims’ made by members of a culture ‘are not that their social understandings are ipso facto, they are justified because they are dominant, regardless of the content of those understandings’ (Gutmann, 1993: 176–7). That would be a counter argument against relativists’ claim that challenges inalienability of human rights values. Since cultures are constantly changing and evolving internally, as well as through interaction with other cultures, there is no guarantee that they will not follow the same values as human rights do.
There is another common oppose from supporters of cultural relativism, who criticized human rights for being representative of the voice of world’s powers and accused all human rights discourse of being politically motivated.
Anthony Appiah, disapproves reducing the whole human rights discourse into just as an exercise in power politics and states:
‘It is characteristic of those who pose as anti-universalists to use the term universalism as if
it meant pseudouniversalism, and the fact is that their complaint is not with universalism at all. What they truly object to- and who would not? – is Eurocentric hegemony posing as universalism. Thus, while the debate is couched in terms of the competing claims of particularism and universalism, the actual ideology of universalism is never interrogated, and, indeed, is even tacitly accepted. Ironically… the attack on something called ‘universalism’ leads to the occlusion of genuine local difference.’
I discussed earlier, that how human rights respect diversity and different cultures. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), itself talks about right to culture and freely pursue of economic, social and cultural development and also obliged states to respect and
ensure these rights. I also emphasised that not individuality nor universalism do not mean that different cultures, cultural and community values, have denied.
At the beginning of this paper, I mentioned some facts about violence happening against women and young girls in different part of the world. Those type of violence and discrimination (like practice of FGM), which drastically affected women and girls’ lives are mostly happening among communities, under justification of cultural/community values and protection of women and community’s ‘honour’. Every year around the world an increasing number of women are reported killed in the name of ‘honour’. Relatives, usually male, commit acts of violence against wives, sisters, daughters and mothers to reclaim their family ‘honour’ from real or suspected actions that are perceived to have compromised it. These are just examples of harmful practices.
The term harmful practices has been mentioned nine times in The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in its general recommendations.
I am using the definition cited on Joint general recommendation of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) on harmful practices, which is said:
‘Harmful practices are therefore grounded in discrimination based on sex, gender and age, among other things, and have often been justified by invoking sociocultural and religious customs and values, in addition to misconceptions relating to some disadvantaged groups of women and children.’
To be more clear about the scope and the characteristics of these practices, I am referring to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and the Committee on the Rights of the Child,  and characteristics of harmful practices.
This is the area, I believe that, human rights could not and should not be tolerated and action needs to be taken. These practices seriously affected rights, dignity, health, freedom and life of so many individuals. Women and girls deprived of enjoying their right to health, right to life and right to not to be discriminated against.
Female genital mutilation (FGM), child and/or forced marriage, crimes committed in the name of ‘honour’ are just examples of harmful cultural practices which bring negative impacts on girls rights to education and health, to life opportunities and indeed, to life itself.
FGM has been inflicted upon between 100 and 140 million women and girls, and has been documented in 29 countries in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America. At least 36 countries worldwide have enacted laws against FGM, demonstrating that in many places it is no longer understood as an acceptable cultural practice, but instead as a harmful violation of women and girls’ rights with horrific health consequences, including severe pain, and complications during childbirth.
Similarly to FGM, countries have increasingly addressed child marriage, as at least 158 countries have set the minimum age for marriage without parental consent at 18 or older. Nonetheless, child marriage persists, as 41 countries have rates of child marriage of 30 percept or more9 and 52 countries allow children under the age of 15 to marry with parental consent. Child marriage is most common in South Asia and West and Central Africa, where two in five girls marry before they reach 18.
In September 2000, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), estimated that as many as 5,000 women and girls are murdered each year in so-called honour killings by members of their own families. Although ‘honour’ killings are widely reported in regions throughout the Middle East and South Asia, United Nations Special Rapporteurs on Extrajudicial, Summary and Arbitrary Executions have reported that these crimes against women occur in countries as varied as Bangladesh, Brazil, Ecuador, Egypt, India, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan, Sweden, Turkey, Uganda and the United Kingdom. There have also been incidents of ‘honour’ killings reported in the United States and Canada.
After reviewing observations and findings on the scope and severity of number of harmful traditional and cultural practices, in this section, I am going to explore the fundamental violation of human rights basic and general principles.
In other word, why human rights could not be tolerated harmful cultural traditions and practices against women and girls?
As Ras-Work, states in her study, harmful traditional practices act as root causes for ‘discrimination and violence’ against girls. Several studies both scientific and social reveal the fact that ‘value based discrimination is systematic’ and against women’s and girls’ dignity.
I underline two fundamental and general principles, which are substantial in human rights context. These principles can be also a strong justification, why human rights should take action to prevent and eliminate the harmful cultural traditions and practices, to protect human dignity and peoples from discrimination.
Human dignity, is central to modern human rights discourse, and plays a vital role, in fundamental documents on human rights, United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).
The definition and interpretation of ‘human dignity’ is hugely debatable. Some scholars, argue the fact that undefined notion of dignity from the drafter of UDHR, may not be problematic, as the role of human rights as a protector of human persons’ dignity, as it is widely accepted. Griffin says, ‘nearly everyone accepts that human rights protect our dignity as human persons’. Again, this widely proposed idea could provide a better ground for different groups. Particularly different cultures, to agree that there are such a thing as the dignity of the person, and largely agree on the rights that follow from it (although they may have different understanding of the scope).
The notion of human dignity is not only fundamental in international human rights system, also in regional human rights instruments like in Arab Charter on Human Rights,and also in the African Charter on Human Rights and People’s Rights.
The principle of non-discrimination is a basic and general principle relating to the protection of human rights. It is recognised in Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and in regional mechanisms, like the American Convention o Human Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights, the African Charter on Human Rights and Peoples’ Rights, Arab Charter on Human Rights.
The definition of the principle of non-discrimination is not clear in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, but the Human Rights Committee has referred to the definition contained in other instruments, like the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. It defines the term ‘racial discrimination’ as ‘any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.’
This principle has been described as ‘the dominant single theme of the [International] Covenant’ on Civil and Political Rights. The theme of non-discrimination therefore runs through this Covenant as a whole. Article 2(2) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights is substantially identical to Article 2(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Together, these provisions highlight the central role of non-discrimination within human rights and international law as a whole.
The principle of non discrimination ensures that all persons within the territory of a state and subject to its jurisdiction will enjoy ‘the rights recognized in the Covenant without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.’ This principle is non-derogable.
It also obliges the State to take positive measure to ‘diminish or eliminate conditions which cause or help to perpetuate discrimination prohibited by the Covenant [on Civil and Political Rights].
Prevention, Empowering, Mobilization;
States’ positive obligations to protect individuals towards human rights violation come from general principles of human rights law and also UN treaty bodies. They have special provisions to take states accountable and responsible for preventing and eliminating harmful cultural traditions and practices affecting women and girls.
Prevention is one of the first steps in combating harmful practices. Both CEDAW and CRC recommend different provisions. They recommend rights-based approach to changing social and cultural norms, through:
‘…we should also note that the objector, once again, oversimplifies tradition, ignoring counter traditions of female defiance and strength, ignoring women’s protests against harmful traditions, and in general forgetting to ask women themselves what they think of these norms, which are typically purveyed, in tradition, through male texts and the authority of male religious and cultural leaders, against a background of women’s almost total economic and political disempowerment.’ 
The 1993, Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women as well as other international instruments adopted the concept of due diligence, in relation to violence against women, as a tool to evaluate whether the State has met its obligation. Under the due diligence obligation, States have a duty to take positive action to prevent and protect women from violence.
Raising awareness about due diligence standards, can be also applicable as an element to encourage the culture of accountability, access to remedy and right based approach, where harmful cultural and traditions are practising.
Changing social and cultural norms, which practiced from generation to generation, might be extremely challenging, as Embarek Warzazi, UN Special Rapporteur, expresses in her observation and analysis:
‘…mobilization within the societies affected by the phenomenon of harmful traditional practices is still a force for positive, albeit slow, change.’
In her comprehensive report, she also warns against the dangers of “demonizing cultures” under cover of condemning practices harmful to women and the girl child. This introduced another dimension to challenges towards changing social and cultural norms and best approaches to follow.
These stories demonstrate that, changing attitudes and practices is possible. But it does not suggest that changing attitudes and practices is only about passing binding legislation and legal reforms. Supportive legality and legislation policies would be necessary but not sufficient.
In this paper I tried to point out the commonality between human rights values and cultural values and also humans common needs and interests which endorse this idea. I raised couple of major to the universality of human right from relativism perspective and also some arguments to respond to them, although the discourse between relativism and cosmopolitanism approach to human rights is an ingoing and debatable issue. Then I demonstrate the existing reality of violation of basic human rights of women and girls under harmful cultural traditions and practices and how and why human rights approach is needed to prevent and eliminate these kind of violence against women and girls with justification of cultural practices.
A number of recommendations can be offered based on recommendations of UN committee, reports of special rapporteurs and other international human rights and health organizations.
Here I am going to conclude this paper with couple of important and crucial aspects of human rights approach actions, aiming to change harmful cultural norms and practices against women and girls.
During the whole process of promoting a human rights approach to change harmful norms and cultural practices, no one should undermine any woman’s choice to lead a traditional life, so long as she does it with certain economic and political opportunities firmly in place.
Finally as Nussbaum proposes:
‘ The road ahead is long, but once women are reconciled with themselves, once they have economic autonomy and control of their fertility, they will be for ever free from the thrall of harmful traditional practices.’
 World Health Organization (WHO) definition: Female genital mutilation (FGM) comprises all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. It has no health benefits and harms girls and women in many ways. It involves removing and damaging healthy and normal female genital tissue, and hence interferes with the natural function of girls’ and women’s bodies. The practice causes severe pain and has several immediate and long-term health consequences, including difficulties in childbirth also causing dangers to the child.
 Population Reference Bureau. 2015.
 World Health Organization (WHO). 2014. Female genital mutilation. Fact sheet N°241
This is one of the many similar – in nature- existing justifications for practicing FGM.
 International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)
 Martin, R.2013. ‘Are human rights universal?’, in (ed.)C. Holder and D. Reidy, Human Rights, The Hard Questions. Cambridge University Press.
 ICESCR ratification/accession rate: 163 countries and ICCPR ratification/accession rate: 168 countries.
 Article. 1.1 ICCPR: 1. All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.
 An-Na`im, A.A. 1992. “Human Rights in Cross-Cultural Perspective A Quest for Consensus”.University of Pennsylvania Press :2.
 Donnelly, J. 1984. ‘Cultural Relativism and Universal Human Rights’ Human Rights Quarterly, Vol. 6, No. 4 :411.
 Nussbaum, M. 2000. WOMEN AND HUMAN DEVELOPMENT. Cambridge University Press : 49.
 Appiah, K.A. 1992. IN MY FATHER’S HOUSE: Africa in the Philosophy o f Culture. OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS : 58.
 Article. 2.1:1. Each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to respect and to ensure to all individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction the rights recognized in the present Covenant, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.
 General recommendations: No. 3 on the implementation of Article 5 of the Convention, No. 14, No. 19, No. 21 on equality in marriage and family relations, No. 24 on women and health, No. 25 on temporary special measures, No. 28 on the core obligations of States parties under Article 2 of the Convention, No. 29 on the economic consequences of marriage, family relations and their dissolution and No. 30 on women in conflict prevention, conflict and post-conflict situations.
 Joint general recommendation No. 31 of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women/general comment No. 18 of the Committee on the Rights of the Child.
 2014. CEDAW/C/GC/31/CRC/C/GC/18(Para. 7).
 United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), Marrying too Young: END CHILD MARRIAGE (2012).
According to the Human Rights fact sheet No. 23 on Harmful Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and children ‘Health complications that result from early marriage, for example,… include the risk of operative delivery, low weight and malnutrition resulting from frequent pregnancies and lactation in the period of life when the young mothers are themselves still growing.’
 The General Assembly has adopted several resolutions on eliminating harmful practices, including FGM/C, including milestone Resolution 67/146 Intensifying Global Efforts towards the Elimination of Female Genital Mutilation (2012).
 Sexual and Reproductive Health: Female Genital Mutilation and other Harmful Practices, World Health Organization (WHO), 2013.
UNFPA, Marrying too Young: END CHilD MARRIAGE (2012).
 United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). 2000.
 Amnesty International USA. 2012. Culture of Discrimination: A Fact Sheet on ‘Honour’ Killings.
 Ras-Work, B. 2006. The impact of harmful traditional practices on the girl child. EGM/DVGC/2006/EP.
 Griffin, J. 2008. On Human Rights. Oxford University Press : 24.
 In the preamble of the Charter :’Given the Arab nation’s belief in human dignity since God honoured it by making the Arab World the cradle of religions and the birthplace of civilizations which confirms its right to a life of dignity, based on freedom, justice and equality,…’
 From the preamble :’Considering the Charter of the Organization of African Unity, which stipulates that freedom, equality, justice and dignity are essential objectives for the achievement of the legitimate aspirations of the African peoples’;…’.
Also in Article 5 ‘Every individual shall have the right to the respect of the dignity inherent in a human being and to the recognition of his legal status….’.
 UNCHR ‘Gneral Comment 18’ in ‘Note by the Secretariat, Compilation of General Comments and General Recommendations adopted by Human Rights Treaty Bodies’ (1994) UN Doc HRI/GEN/1/Rev.1.
 Article 1.1: The States Parties to this Convention undertake to respect the rights and freedoms recognized herein and to ensure to all persons subject to their jurisdiction the free and full exercise of those rights and freedoms, without any discrimination for reasons of race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, economic status, birth, or any other social condition.
 Article 14: The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this Convention shall be secured without discrimination on any ground such as sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status.
 Article 2: Every individual shall be entitled to the enjoyment of the rights and freedoms recognized and guaranteed in the present Charter without distinction of any kind such as race, ethnic group, colour, sex, language, religion, political or any other opinion, national and social origin, fortune, birth or other status.
 Article 3.1: Each State party to the present Charter undertakes to ensure to all individuals subject to its jurisdiction the right to enjoy the rights and freedoms set forth herein, without distinction on grounds of race, colour, sex, language, religious belief, opinion, thought, national or social origin, wealth, birth or physical or mental disability.
 UNCHR ‘General Comment 18’ in ‘Note by the Secretariat, Compilation of General Comments and General Recommendations adopted by Human Rights Treaty Bodies’ (1994) UN Doc HRI/GEN/1/Rev.1(Para. 6).
 UNCHR ‘General Comment 18’ in ‘Note by the Secretariat, Compilation of General Comments and General Recommendations adopted by Human Rights Treaty Bodies’ (1994) UN Doc HRI/GEN/1/Rev.1, (Para. 6).
 Craven, M. 1998. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: A Perspective on Its Development .Oxford :153-4, quoting B. Ramcharan. ‘Equality and Non-discrimination’ in L. Henkin (ed), The International Bill of Rights: The Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Columbia University Press, New York, 1981)
 Saul, B and others (eds.). 2014. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: commentary, cases and materials. Oxford :174.
 UNCHR ‘General Comment 18’ in ‘Note by the Secretariat, Compilation of General Comments and General Recommendations adopted by Human Rights Treaty Bodies’ (1994) UN Doc HRI/GEN/1/Rev.1, (Para. 1).
 UNCHR ‘General Comment 18’ in ‘Note by the Secretariat, Compilation of General Comments and General Recommendations adopted by Human Rights Treaty Bodies’ (1994) UN Doc HRI/GEN/1/Rev.1, (Para. 1).
 UNCHR ‘General Comment 18’ in ‘Note by the Secretariat, Compilation of General Comments and General Recommendations adopted by Human Rights Treaty Bodies’ (1994) UN Doc HRI/GEN/1/Rev.1,(Para. 10).
 Nussbaum, M. 2000. WOMEN AND HUMAN DEVELOPMENT. Cambridge University Press.
 Due diligence standards, also include punish perpetrators of violent acts and compensate victims of violence. However, the application of due diligence standard, to date, has tended to be State-centric and limited to responding to violence when it occurs, largely neglecting the obligation to prevent and compensate and the responsibility of non-State actors.
 Embarek Warzazi, H. 1999.‘Third report on the situation regarding the elimination of traditional practices affecting the health of women and the girl child’ (E/CN.4/Sub.2/1999/14)
 On 20 December 2012, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution A/RES/67/146 in which it “Calls upon States, the United Nations system, civil society and all stakeholders to continue to observe 6 February as the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation and to use the day to enhance awareness- raising campaigns and to take concrete actions against female genital mutilations”.
 Despite Ethiopia’s legal restrictions prohibiting marriage before age 18, 50 percept of girls are married by age 15 in Ethiopia’s rural Amhara region, and 80 percept of girls are married by age 18.
 ICPD AND HUMAN RIGHTS: 20 years of advancing reproductive rights through UN treaty bodies and legal reform (2013).
 Ertürk, Y. 2006. ‘Report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences’
 A very good example of these initiatives: ‘The Violence Is Not Our Culture’ Campaign is an initiative of Women Living Under Muslim Laws, to eliminate all forms of ‘culturally-justified’ violence against women.
 Embarek Warzazi, H. 1999.‘Third report on the situation regarding the elimination of traditional practices affecting the health of women and the girl child’. (Para. 82).
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