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Cultural Practices Can Be Harmful, Says UN Population Fund


A new report finds that some cultural practices can be harmful and lead to violations of basic human rights. The "State of the World Population 2008" report, produced by the United Nations Population Fund, finds development strategies that are sensitive to cultural values can reduce harmful practices against women and promote human rights. Lisa Schlein reports from Geneva.

The report finds culture is as central to peoples' lives as are health, economics and politics. While cultural values can unite societies for good, the U.N. report says they often can lead to harm.

It says women frequently are denied basic rights in the name of culture. They often are victims of coercion, which make them powerless to resist practices that can cause great distress.

In the name of tradition, the report says, many societies practice child marriage, which is a leading cause of obstetric fistula and maternal death.

Siri Tellier, U.N. Population Fund Director in Geneva, says female genital mutilation is a common practice in many countries. She says this tradition is considered necessary to protect the honor of the girl and the social status of her family.

Tellier says the practice is often wrongfully perceived as having a religious foundation.

"And actually a number of religious leaders, particularly Muslim religious leaders in countries as diverse as the Netherlands and Somalia have issued statements against it, saying it is against Islam and saying it has important health consequences - adverse health consequences," she said. "To give an example, recently a number of communities in Uganda, together as a community, decided to abandon the practice and they were encouraged by a resolution, which was passed last year in the U.N."

Tellier says human rights can have practical applications at the community level and that religious leaders can help promote human rights.

The U.N. report acknowledges that religion is central to many peoples' lives. But it notes that religion can be used to justify blatant human rights violations such as so-called "honor killings," when women who are believed to have dishonored their families are killed by a relative.

The report says cultural norms and traditions may perpetuate gender-based violence, and both women and men learn to turn a blind eye toward these practices.

The United Nations says about one-half-million women die each year from causes related to pregnancy or childbirth. Most of these maternal deaths occur in Africa.

The report says many of these deaths occur because of cultural reasons that promote home deliveries. It says these births often take place in unsanitary conditions, rather than in a hospital.

The report notes that cultural sensitivity can lead to better reproductive health and rights. It recommends getting men involved in the design, implementation, and delivery of reproductive health programs to help overcome cultural resistance to contraception and family planning.