Harmful practices

Child marriage and female genital mutilation are internationally recognized human rights violations.

A girl, 5, stands in her home in Aroma Village, near the city of Kassala.

Harmful cultural practices, such as child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM), are discriminatory practices committed regularly over such long periods of time that communities and societies begin to consider them acceptable.

Around the world, hundreds of millions of girls and boys have experienced some form of violence, exploitation or harmful practice, although girls are at much greater risk. Child marriage and FGM span continents and cultures, yet, in every society in which they are practiced, they reflect values that hold girls in low esteem.

Some 650 million girls and women around the world today have been married as children, and over 200 million have undergone FGM.

FGM can lead to serious health complications – including prolonged bleeding, infection and infertility – or even death. Girls who have undergone FGM are at heightened risk of experiencing complications during childbirth. It is estimated that FGM causes an additional one to two perinatal deaths per 100 deliveries.

In some societies, FGM goes hand in hand with child marriage. Girls married as children are more likely to drop out of school and become pregnant as teenagers – when they face increased risks of dying during pregnancy or childbirth. Infants born to teenage mothers are also more likely to be stillborn or die in the first month of life.

Wherever they occur, harmful practices rob girls of their childhood, deny them the chance to determine their own future and threaten the well-being of individuals, families and societies.

A young woman, against a blue background, looks off-camera.
Asiya Abdu, 22, waits to be examined by a health worker in the Worer Health Centre, Ethiopia. Asiya, who was subjected to FGM as a child, is now pregnant with her fifth child.

UNICEF's response

The Sustainable Development Goals call for the elimination of all harmful practices to advance the rights of women and girls globally. UNICEF seeks to ensure that every child is protected from violence and exploitation, including harmful practices, in both humanitarian and development settings. To that end, UNICEF works across the globe to:

  • Increase global knowledge of the problem and political commitment to end child marriage and FGM
  • Develop and support implementation of appropriate laws and policies
  • Support community-level transformation of social norms and practices
  • Empower women and girls to express and exercise their rights
  • Increase access to quality prevention, protection and care services
  • Increase government ownership over relevant programmes and efforts
  • Strengthen data collection and analysis

UNICEF’s Strategic Plan 2018–2021 reaffirms our commitment to help eliminate child marriage and FGM. Together with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), UNICEF co-leads the Joint Programme on Eliminating Female Genital Mutilation: Accelerating Change and the Global Programme to End Child Marriage.

In 2018, UNICEF-supported programmes reached nearly 5 million adolescent girls in 46 countries with prevention and care services related to ending child marriage. Seven million people also participated in education, communication and awareness-raising activities to help eliminate FGM.

Last modified March 2020


UNICEF Strategic Plan Goal Area 3 Indicator Manual (Version 1.7)

This manual helps practitioners improve results-based management for – and track progress towards – the protection of children from violence and exploitation.

Latest Trends and Future Prospects

This data brochure showcases global progress on preventing child marriage in the last decade. 

Calling for the End of the Medicalization of Female Genital Mutilation

This brief describes how female genital mutilation, a human rights violation, is being carried out by health care providers in some countries.

Everybody Wants to Belong

This practical guide explores how to tackle and leverage social norms in behaviour change programming.