Harmful Traditional Practices

What are harmful traditional practices?

Harmful Traditional Practices. What health workers need to know.

Harmful traditional practices are forms of violence which have been committed primarily against women and girls in certain communities and societies for so long that they are considered, or presented by perpetrators, as part of accepted cultural practice.

The most common are:

  • Forced or early marriage
    can be defined as ‘a marriage in which one or both spouses do not  (or, in the case of some adults with learning or physical disabilities, cannot) consent to the marriage and duress is involved’.
  • So-called ‘honour’-based violence
    any type of physical or psychological violence committed in the name of ‘honour’ predominantly against women for actual or perceived immoral behaviour, which is deemed to have shamed their family or community.
  • Female genital mutilation or cutting (FGM)
    refers to procedures that intentionally alter or injure female genital organs for non-medical reasons.

Victims of forced marriage and “honour” based violence often experience abuse within the relationship.  Rape, physical, emotional and psychological violence, forced pregnancy and restrictions on freedom of dress, behaviour and lifestyle are common.  Some women are virtually under house arrest, and may only be allowed out if accompanied by family members.

Who is at risk?

The key risk factor for experiencing forced marriage and ‘honour’-based violence is being female. 

Younger women are the main victims although men are also sometimes affected.

The majority of those seeking advice for forced marriage are Asian women and tend to be aged between 18 and 23.  FGM is most frequently carried out on young girls between infancy and the age of 15.

Health impact

Harmful traditional practices encompasses a range of abuse which results in physical and psychological harm, disability and even death for significant numbers of women.

Patients may present with physical, sexual and mental health issues.  Some of the signs to look out for include:

  • Issues consistent with domestic abuse
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Substance misuse
  • Eating disorders
  • Early and unwanted pregnancy
  • Self-harm, suicidality

Women may present to health professionals with many of the same problems evident in women experiencing domestic abuse.  Other potential indicators are:

  • Family history of older siblings marrying early
  • Withdrawal from education, or for women with physical or learning disabilities, withdrawal from their social networks or day care
  • A young woman being taken to the doctor to be examined to see if she is a virgin
  • Possible presentation of symptoms associated with poisoning
  • Less commonly, a woman’s hair may have been cut or shaved as punishment

Remember – a woman may be a virtual prisoner at home, so seeing health staff may be a rare opportunity for her to tell someone about what is happening.

Your role as a health worker

As a health worker you are in a unique position to respond to any form of harmful traditional practice by treating the patient with respect and dignity and by:

  • Being aware of the possibility of such abuse
  • Understanding the cultural context
  • Recognising signs and symptons
  • Initiating discussion
  • Assessing safety
  • Documenting your findings (not in handheld notes)
  • Giving correct information
  • Be sensitive to different needs and ensure all patients can access services equally, for example by providing professional interpreting services

Further information on what to look for and what you can do to help can be found in the guidance.

The presence of domestic abuse may also mean that dependent children are at risk of serious harm.  If you suspect this, you should follow local child protection procedures and seek a multi-agency response to increasing safety for those affected.

Help and Information

Forced Marriage Unit:
020 7008 0151

Amina Muslim Women’s Resource Centre:
0808 801 0301

Hemat Gryffe Women’s Aid:
0141 353 0859

Domestic Abuse Helpline:
0800 027 1234 (24 hours)

Shakti Women’s Aid:
0131 475 2399

Ethnic Minorities Law Centre:
Glasgow: 0141 204 2888
Edinburgh: 0131 229 2038

Support for Survivors

If you are looking for support for your own experiences of GBV you can call:

Scottish Domestic Abuse Helpline
0800 027 1234

Rape Crisis Scotland
08088 010302

or click on:

Scottish Womens Aid

Survivor Scotland

Galop National LGBT Domestic Abuse Helpline


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