UN Documents—Examples of statements that culture, tradition or

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Culture, tradition or religion
Examples of statements in UN documents that
 culture, tradition or religion may not be used to justify violations of women’s human rights, or
 states have an obligation to counter violations against women based on culture, tradition or religion
Compiled by Stephanie Farrior
CEDAW: Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women
CCPR: Human Rights Committee; monitors implementation of International Covenant on Civil and Political
Rights
CESCR: Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
CRC: Committee on the Rights of the Child
HRC: Human Rights Committee
Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action (1993)

Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, A/CONF.157/23 (12 July 1993) available at
http://www.unhchr.ch/huridocda/huridoca.nsf/(Symbol)/A.CONF.157.23.En?OpenDocument
Part I, Paragraph 5
5. All human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated. The international community
must treat human rights globally in a fair and equal manner, on the same footing, and with the same emphasis.
While the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious
backgrounds must be borne in mind, it is the duty of States, regardless of their political, economic and cultural
systems, to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms.
Part I, Paragraph 18
18. The human rights of women and the girl-child are an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal
human rights … Gender-based violence and all forms of sexual harassment and exploitation, including those
resulting from cultural prejudice and international trafficking, are incompatible with the dignity and worth of the
human person, and must be eliminated.
Part II, Paragraph 22
22. The World Conference on Human Rights calls upon all Governments to take all appropriate measures in
compliance with their international obligations and with due regard to their respective legal systems to counter
intolerance and related violence based on religion or belief, including practices of discrimination against women
and including the desecration of religious sites, recognizing that every individual has the right to freedom of
thought, conscience, expression and religion.
Part II, Paragraph 38
38. In particular, the World Conference on Human Rights stresses the importance of working towards the
elimination of violence against women in public and private life … and the eradication of any conflicts which may
arise between the rights of women and the harmful effects of certain traditional or customary practices, cultural
prejudices and religious extremism.
Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (DEVAW)
 Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, adopted by the UN General
Assembly in 1993
Article 4
States should condemn violence against women and should not invoke any custom, tradition or religious
consideration to avoid their obligations with respect to its elimination. States should pursue by all appropriate
means and without delay a policy of eliminating violence against women …
Preparations for the Fourth World Conference on Women,
 Report of the Secretary General to the Commission on the Status of Women, thirty-ninth
session, 15 March-4 April 1995, E/CN.6/1995/3/Add.7 (14 March 1995) available at
http://www.un.org/documents/ecosoc/cn6/1995/ecn61995-3add7.htm
6. The World Conference on Human Rights (1993) explicitly recognized that “the human rights of women and of
the girl-child are an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal human rights” and that “gender-based
violence and all forms of sexual harassment and exploitation, including those resulting from cultural prejudice
and international trafficking, are incompatible with the dignity and worth of the human person and must be
eliminated.”
Thus, the Conference rejected any limitation of international standards of human rights for women on the
grounds of conflict with culture, tradition or religion.
Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action
 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, Fourth World Conference on Women (Sept.
1995) available at http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/beijing/ platform/
Paragraph 118
… Violence against women throughout the life cycle derives essentially from cultural patterns, in particular the
harmful effects of certain traditional or customary practices and all acts of extremism linked to race, sex,
language or religion that perpetuate the lower status accorded to women in the family, the workplace, the
community and society.
Strategic objective D.1.
Take integrated measures to prevent and eliminate violence against women
Actions to be taken
124.
By Governments:
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a.
Condemn violence against women and refrain from invoking any custom, tradition or
religious consideration to avoid their obligations with respect to its elimination as set out in the
Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women …
General Assembly resolution reaffirming commitment to Beijing Declaration
 Further Actions and Initiatives to Implement the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action,
A/RES/S-23/3 (16 November 2000) available at http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/
followup/ress233e.pdf
69. (e) Develop, adopt and fully implement laws and other measures, as appropriate, such as policies and
educational programmes, to eradicate harmful customary or traditional practices, including female genital
mutilation, early and forced marriage and so-called honour crimes, which are violations of the human rights of
women and girls and obstacles to the full enjoyment by women of their human rights and fundamental freedoms,
and intensify efforts, in cooperation with local women’s groups, to raise collective and individual awareness of
how these harmful traditional or customary practices violate women’s human rights…
Resolution extending mandate of Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women.
 Elimination of Violence against Women, U.N. Commission on Human Rights, Resolution
2003/45 (Apr. 23, 2005)
Paragraph 14
[The Commission on Human Rights] [s]tresses that States have an affirmative duty to promote and protect the
human rights of women and girls and must exercise due diligence to prevent, investigate and punish acts of all
forms of violence against women and girls, and calls upon States …
(d) To condemn violence against women and not invoke custom, tradition or practices in the name of religion or
culture to avoid their obligations to eliminate such violence[.]
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women
Article 5
States Parties shall take all appropriate measures:
(a) To modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the
elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or
the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women;
Article 10(c)
States parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in order to ensure to
them equal rights with mean in the field of education and in particular to ensure, on a basis of equality with men:
(c) The elimination of any stereotyped concept of the roles of men and women at all levels and in all forms of
education by encouraging coeducation and other types of education which will help to achieve this aim, and in
particular, by the revision of textbooks and school programmes and the adaptation of teaching methods;
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CEDAW General Recommendation No. 3 (1987): Education and public information programmes
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women…
Urges all states parties effectively to adopt education and public information programmes, which will help
eliminate prejudices and current practices that hinder the full operation of the principle of the social equality of
women.
CEDAW General Recommendation No. 19 (1992): Violence against women
11.
Traditional attitudes by which women are regarded as subordinate to men or as having stereotyped roles
perpetuate widespread practices involving violence or coercion, such as family violence and abuse, forced
marriage, dowry deaths, acid attacks and female circumcision. Such prejudices and practices may justify genderbased violence as a form of protection or control of women. The effect of such violence on the physical and
mental integrity of women is to deprive them of the equal enjoyment, exercise and knowledge of human rights and
fundamental freedoms. While this comment addresses mainly actual or threatened violence the underlying
consequences of these forms of gender-based violence help to maintain women in subordinate roles and
contribute to their low level of political participation and to their lower level of education, skills and work
opportunities.
21.
Rural women are at risk of gender-based violence because of traditional attitudes regarding the
subordinate role of women that persist in many rural communities. Girls from rural communities are at special
risk of violence and sexual exploitation when they leave the rural community to seek employment in towns.
Specific recommendation
24. …[T]he Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women recommends that:
(e) States parties in their reports should identify the nature and extent of attitudes, customs and practices that
perpetuate violence against women and the kinds of violence that result. They should report on the measures that
they have undertaken to overcome violence and the effect of those measures;
(f) Effective measures should be taken to overcome these attitudes and practices. States should
introduce education and public information programmes to help eliminate prejudices that hinder
women’s equality (recommendation No. 3, 1987)…
CEDAW General Recommendation No. 21: Equality in marriage and family relations
3. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women recalls the inalienable
rights of women which are already embodied in the above-mentioned conventions and declarations, but it goes
further by recognizing the importance of culture and tradition in shaping the thinking and behaviour of men and
women and the significant part they play in restricting the exercise of basic rights by women.
13. The form and concept of the family can vary from State to State, and even between regions within a State.
Whatever form it takes, and whatever the legal system, religion, custom or tradition within the country, the
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treatment of women in the family both at law and in private must accord with the principles of equality and justice
for all people, as article 2 of the Convention requires.
15. While most countries report that national constitutions and laws comply with the Convention, custom,
tradition and failure to enforce these laws in reality contravene the Convention.
CEDAW General recommendation No. 23 (1997): Political and public life
20(c) In many nations, traditions and social and cultural stereotypes discourage women from exercising their
right to vote. Many men influence or control the votes of women by persuasion or direct action, including voting
on their behalf. Any such practices should be prevented;
27.
States parties have a further obligation to ensure that barriers to women’s full participation in the
formulation of government policy are identified and overcome. These barriers include complacency when token
women are appointed, and traditional and customary attitudes that discourage women’s participation.
44.
States parties should explain the reason for, and effect of, any reservations to articles 7 or 8 and indicate
where the reservations reflect traditional, customary or stereotyped attitudes towards women’s roles in society, as
well as the steps being taken by the States parties to change those attitudes.
48.
When reporting under article 7, States parties should:
(a)
Describe the legal provisions that give effect to the rights contained in article 7;
(b)
Provide details of any restrictions to those rights, whether arising from legal provisions or from
traditional, religious or cultural practices;
(c)
Describe the measures introduced and designed to overcome barriers to the exercise of those
rights;
Human Rights Committee – General Comment No. 28 (2000): The equality of rights between men and
women
5. Inequality in the enjoyment of rights by women throughout the world is deeply embedded in tradition, history
and culture, including religious attitudes. The subordinate role of women in some countries is illustrated by the
high incidence of prenatal sex selection and abortion of female foetuses. States parties should ensure that
traditional, historical, religious or cultural attitudes are not used to justify violations of women's right to equality
before the law and to equal enjoyment of all Covenant rights. States parties should furnish appropriate
information on those aspects of tradition, history, cultural practices and religious attitudes which jeopardize, or
may jeopardize, compliance with article 3, and indicate what measures they have taken or intend to take to
overcome such factors.
13. States parties should provide information on any specific regulation of clothing to be worn by women in
public. The Committee stresses that such regulations may involve a violation of a number of rights guaranteed by
the Covenant, such as: article 26, on non-discrimination; article 7, if corporal punishment is imposed in order to
enforce such a regulation; article 9, when failure to comply with the regulation is punished by arrest; article 12,
if liberty of movement is subject to such a constraint; article 17, which guarantees all persons the right to privacy
without arbitrary or unlawful interference; articles 18 and 19, when women are subjected to clothing
requirements that are not in keeping with their religion or their right of self-expression; and, lastly, article 27,
when the clothing requirements conflict with the culture to which the woman can lay a claim.
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28. The obligation of States parties to protect children (art. 24) should be carried out equally for boys and girls.
States parties should report on measures taken to ensure that girls are treated equally to boys in education, in
feeding and in health care, and provide the Committee with disaggregated data in this respect. States parties
should eradicate, both through legislation and any other appropriate measures, all cultural or religious practices
which jeopardize the freedom and well-being of female children.
31. . . . . The Committee has also often observed in reviewing States parties’ reports that a large proportion of
women are employed in areas which are not protected by labour laws and that prevailing customs and traditions
discriminate against women, particularly with regard to access to better paid employment and to equal pay for
work of equal value. States parties should review their legislation and practices and take the lead in
implementing all measures necessary to eliminate discrimination against women in all fields, for example by
prohibiting discrimination by private actors in areas such as employment, education, political activities and the
provision of accommodation, goods and services. States parties should report on all these measures and provide
information on the remedies available to victims of such discrimination.
32. The rights which persons belonging to minorities enjoy under article 27 of the Covenant in respect of their
language, culture and religion do not authorize any State, group or person to violate the right to the equal
enjoyment by women of any Covenant rights, including the right to equal protection of the law. States should
report on any legislation or administrative practices related to membership in a minority community that might
constitute an infringement of the equal rights of women under the Covenant (communication No. 24/1977,
Lovelace v. Canada, Views adopted July 1981) and on measures taken or envisaged to ensure the equal right of
men and women to enjoy all civil and political rights in the Covenant. Likewise, States should report on measures
taken to discharge their responsibilities in relation to cultural or religious practices within minority communities
that affect the rights of women. In their reports, States parties should pay attention to the contribution made by
women to the cultural life of their communities.
Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights—General Comment No. 14
 CESCR General Comment 14 (2000): Article 12: The Right to the Highest Attainable
Standard of Health
...
Women and the right to health
...
21. . . . . The realization of women's right to health requires the removal of all barriers interfering with access to
health services, education and information, including in the area of sexual and reproductive health. It is also
important to undertake preventive, promotive and remedial action to shield women from the impact of harmful
traditional cultural practices and norms that deny them their full reproductive rights.
22. . . . . There is a need to adopt effective and appropriate measures to abolish harmful traditional practices
affecting the health of children, particularly girls, including early marriage, female genital mutilation,
preferential feeding and care of male children.
Specific legal obligations
35. . . . . States are also obliged to ensure that harmful social or traditional practices do not interfere with access
to pre- and post-natal care and family-planning; to prevent third parties from coercing women to undergo
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traditional practices, e.g. female genital mutilation; and to take measures to protect all vulnerable or
marginalized groups of society, in particular women, children, adolescents and older persons, in the light of
gender-based expression of violence.
Violations of the obligation to protect
51. Violations of the obligation to protect follow from the failure of a State party to take all necessary measures
to safeguard persons within their jurisdiction from infringements of the right to health by third parties. This
category includes . . . the failure to discourage the continued observance of harmful traditional medical or
cultural practices . . .
Committee on the Rights of the Child—General Comment No. 4
 CRC General Comment 4 (2003): Adolescent Health and Development in the Context of the
Convention on the Rights of the Child
24. … The Committee strongly urges States parties to develop and implement awareness-raising campaigns,
education programmes and legislation aimed at changing prevailing attitudes, and address gender roles and
stereotypes that contribute to harmful traditional practices. Further, States parties should facilitate the
establishment of multidisciplinary information and advice centres regarding the harmful aspects of some
traditional practices, including early marriage and female genital mutilation.
39. … States parties must notably fulfil the following obligations:
…
(g) To protect adolescents from all harmful traditional practices, such as early marriages, honour killings
and female genital mutilation.
Reports of the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women
 Preliminary Report of the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Its Causes and
Consequences, E/CN/1995/42 (Nov. 1994) available at http://www.ohchr.org/english/issues/
women/rapporteur/annual.htm
D. Cultural ideology
…
65. Article 4 of the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women states clearly that “States should
condemn violence against women and should not invoke custom, tradition or religious consideration to avoid
their obligations with respect to its elimination.” /General Assembly resolution 48/104./…
66. … Though interpretation may vary, there is no question that all the world’s religions are committed to the
pursuit of equality and human rights. However, certain man-made practices performed in the name of religion
not only denigrate individual religions but violate internationally accepted norms of human rights, including
women’s rights… It is the concern of the international community that this dialogue results in the elimination of
man-made practices which violate human rights and the spirit of equality contained in the world’s religions. This
question should be high on the list of priorities. Religious considerations should never be used to justify the use
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of violence against women. / D.L. Eck and D. Jain Speaking of Faith: Cross Cultural Perspectives on Women,
Religion and Social Change, New Delhi, Kali, 1986./
…
68. Not all customs and traditions are unprotective of women’s rights… However, those customs and traditions
which involve violence against women must be challenged and eliminated as violating the basic tenants of
international human rights law. / See, for example, A. Sen, “More than 100 million women are missing” in New
York Review of Books, 20 December 1990, or A. El-Dareer, Women, Why Do You Weep? Circumcision and its
Consequences, London, Zed, 1982 or M. Kishwar, “Dowry deaths, the real murders,” Indian Times, 9 April
1989./
 Report of the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women: Violence in the family,
E/CN.4/1996/53 (6 Feb. 1996) available at http://www.unhchr.ch/Huridocda/Huridoca.nsf/
TestFrame/c41d8f479a2e9757802566d6004c72ab?Opendocument
H. Traditional practices affecting the health of women and children
101. It is important to emphasize that not all customs and traditions are unprotective of womens rights …
However, those practices that constitute definite forms of violence against women cannot be overlooked nor
justified on the grounds of tradition, culture or social conformity. In this context, many international human
rights instruments, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women
(art. 5(a)), the Convention on the Rights of the Child, as well as, most recently, the Declaration on the
Elimination of Violence Against Women and the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action call on States to
refrain from invoking any custom, tradition or religious consideration to avoid their obligation with respect to the
elimination of all forms of violence against women.
 Report of the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women: Violence in the Community,
E/CN.4/1997/47 (12 February 1997) available at http://www.unhchr.ch/Huridocda/
Huridoca.nsf/TestFrame/043c76f98a706362802566b1005e9219?Opendocument
15. Although not legally binding, the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women sets out a
comprehensive framework with regard to the elimination of violence. With regard to violence against women in
the community, the State is called upon to condemn violence against women and not to invoke custom, tradition
or religion to avoid its obligations. The Declaration recommends, therefore, that the State take an active role in
eliminating and preventing violence against women by or within the community. Article 4 of the Declaration
requests that States “adopt all appropriate measures, especially in the field of education, to modify the social and
cultural patterns of conduct of men and women and to eliminate prejudices, customary practices and all other
practices based on the idea of the inferiority or superiority of either of the sexes and on stereotyped roles for men
and women.” The State is vested with a positive obligation to bring about redress, not only through legislation,
but also by fundamentally changing the patterns of socialization which tend to disempower women and create an
atmosphere in which violence against them appears more legitimate.
 Report of the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women: Violence against women in
the family, E/CN.4/1999/68 (10 March 1996) available at http://daccessdds.un.org/doc/
UNDOC/GEN/G99/113/54/PDF/G9911354.pdf?OpenElement
32. Increasingly, States are using cultural relativist claims to avoid responsibility for positive, anti-violence
action. The recognition of heterogeneous or multicultural communities is not at odds with developing
comprehensive and multifaceted strategies to combat domestic violence. In all communities, the root
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causes of domestic violence are similar, even when the justifications for such violence or the forms of
such violence vary.
 Report of the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women: Cultural practices in the
family that are violent towards women, E/CN.4/2002/83 (31 January 2002) available at
http://www.daccessdds.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G02/104/28/PDF/G0210428.pdf?
OpenElement
I. INTRODUCTION
1. Throughout the world, there are practices in the family that are violent towards women and harmful to their
health. Young girls are circumcised, live under severe dress codes, given in prostitution, denied property rights
and killed for the sake of honour in the family. These practices and many others constitute a form of domestic
violence but have avoided national and international scrutiny because they are seen as cultural practices that
deserve tolerance and respect. The universal standards of human rights are often denied full operation when it
comes to the rights of women. Cultural relativism is therefore often an excuse to allow for inhumane and
discriminatory practices against women in the community. In the next century, the problems posed by cultural
relativism, and the implications for women’s rights, will be one of the most important issues in the field of
international human rights.
2. The Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women is extremely clear. Article 5 states:
“State Parties shall take all appropriate measures: (a) To modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of
men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices
which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for
men and women …”
3. Article 2 of the Convention states: “State Parties condemn discrimination against women in all its forms,
agree to pursue by all appropriate means and without delay a policy of eliminating discrimination against
women….”
4. The Declaration of Violence against Women, solemnly proclaimed by the General Assembly in its resolution
48/104, also states clearly, in article 4, “States should condemn violence against women and should not invoke
any custom, tradition or religious consideration to avoid their obligations with respect to its elimination.”
…
8. …[T]here should be maximum international and national pressure to ensure that religious and customary laws
conform to universally accepted international norms.
IV. STATE RESPONSIBILITY
…
110. The Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women states clearly:
“States should condemn violence against women and should not invoke any custom, tradition or religious
consideration to avoid their obligations with respect to its elimination. States should pursue by all appropriate
means and without delay a policy of eliminating violence against women.”
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111. …By arguing that custom, tradition and religion cannot be invoked by States parties to defend violence
against women in the family, international standards reject the cultural relativist argument that cultural practices
that are violent towards women in the family should be shielded from international scrutiny.
V. RECOMMENDATIONS
B. At the national level
123. States should not invoke any custom, tradition or religious consideration to avoid their obligation to
eradicate violence against women and the girl child in the family.
 Report of the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women: E/CN.4/2003/75 (6 January
2003) available at http://www.unhchr.ch/Huridocda/Huridoca.nsf/0/
d90c9e2835619e79c1256ce00058c145/$FILE/G0310100.pdf
83. [T]he greatest challenge to human rights comes from the doctrine of cultural relativism where women’s
issues play a vital part…. The greatest challenge is to ensure that the fight for human dignity is a collective fight
involving all the world’s people and not the imposition of a dominant will. The greatest challenge for women’s
rights in the next decade is to fight cultural and ideological practices that violate women’s rights without
offending the dignity of the very women whose rights we are defending.
 Report of the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women: Towards an effective
implementation of international norms to end violence against women, E/CN.4/2004/66 (26
December 2003) available at http://daccessdds.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G04/
102/02/PDF/G0410202.pdf?OpenElement
B. Expanding on the concept of violence against women, remaining gaps and challenges
1. Institutionalization of the link between male power and violence
…
38. … The new sites of “normativity,” drawing their legitimacy from culture and religion, have been identified by
the former Special Rapporteur as the greatest challenge to women’s human rights (see E/CN.4/2003/75, para.
83). The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women also draws attention to
the contradictions that may arise in the intersectionality of collective rights and the human rights of women. This
paradox begs the question, “Does the right to cultural difference and specificity, as embedded in the freedom of
religion and belief, contradict the universality of human rights of women?” Alternatively, the question can be
turned around as follows: “Is control over and regulation of women the only means by which cultural specificity
and tradition can be sustained?” “Is it culture, or authoritarian patriarchal coercion and the interests of
hegemonic masculinity that violates the human rights of women everywhere?” “When a man beats his wife, is he
exercising his right in the name of culture? If so, are culture, tradition and religion the property of men alone?”
39. Universal human rights norms are clear on these questions. The Declaration stresses that States “should not
invoke any custom, tradition or religious consideration to avoid their obligations with respect to [the elimination
of violence against women]” (art. 4). The Dialogue among Civilizations, based on the convergence in values
embedded in the common heritage of human rights, is critical for resisting religious extremism and its
transgression on women’s ‘human rights. It is through such constructive dialogue that consensus on values and
norms can lead to a convergence of action in achieving unity within diversity.
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