The UN Approach to Harmful Traditional Practices: Some Conceptual Problems

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Abstract
Although we support UN initiatives to combat those cultural practices it has identified as harmful to women and children, we have some reservations about the way in which those initiatives have been conceptualised. We are concerned that the UN emphasis on 'non-Western' cultures gives the impression that the metropolitan centres of the West contain no 'traditions' or 'culture' harmful to women, and that the violence which does exist there is idiosyncratic rather than culturally condoned. The paper gives a brief historical overview of UN initiatives in relation to 'harmful traditional practices' (HTPs). It then goes on to discuss what is involved in the notion of 'culture'. In the next section, we turn the focus of attention to 'the West', applying the UN schema to illustrate the point that the wealthy industrialised nations have their own traditions harmful to women. Although these traditions differ in crucial ways from those identified by the UN, they, too, are a consequence of a culture of male supremacy. In a final section, we discuss briefly some other problems we see arising from the UN approach to HTPs, namely, the oddness of the category 'violence against women', the lack of consideration given to prostitution as a HTP, and the difficulties of including Western HTPs within a human rights framework. We conclude by pointing out that unless harm to women is situated within a world-wide culture of male supremacy, it can seem as though the problems are elsewhere than the wealthy, metropolitan centres of the West.
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Winter, Bronwyn
Thompson, Denise
Jeffreys, Sheila
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Publication Year
2002
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Journal Article
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