Harmful Practices

Safeguarding Network

February 2024 - 5 minute read

Loved 1 times


Harmful practices is a collective term for a number of different forms of abuse which all share a similar characteristic and are seen as acceptable practices within some sections of society.

Harmful practices can cover, amongst other forms of abuse, child marriage, forced marriage, female genital mutilation, breast flattening, child abuse linked to faith or belief and so-called “honour-based” abuse.

All of these practices in isolation are physically and/or emotionally abusive, however, their continued adoption in society means that they stop being seen as abusive and start to be seen as acceptable, even a rite of passage, therefore losing the label of abuse.

As seen in the definition below, all forms of harmful practices are grounded in some form of discrimination and are likely to cause harm and suffering. Violence does not necessarily need to be involved, however, it is often a feature.

Need more?

Thank you for visiting our resources pages. These are free to everyone as is our fortnightly safeguarding bulletin – general safeguarding information is too important to restrict. Become a member to access lots more, including training materials for you to deliver in-house on each topic in Keeping Children Safe in Education.

Sign up for FREE fortnightly bulletin.

What about training?

We can deliver training for your setting on this and other subjects via online platforms, or face-to-face in certain areas. Just get in touch to discuss your requirements.

Definition of harmful practices

Harmful practices are persistent practices and behaviours that are grounded in discrimination on the basis of sex, gender, age and other grounds as well as multiple and/or intersecting forms of discrimination that often involve violence and cause physical and/or psychological harm or suffering.

National Female Genital Mutilation Centre

Culture and safeguarding

When something is linked to a person’s faith or culture, it is not an excuse for child abuse. Whilst we should be aware that culture and faith are an important part of many families’ lives, as professionals we need to maintain a culturally competent approach – not alienating the families we are working with, but not losing sight of any potential harm. As the National Working Group identifies “… this is not about challenging people’s beliefs, but where these beliefs lead to abuse that should not be tolerated.”

Culturally competent practice

Many serious case reviews identify a lack of knowledge about a particular culture or faith as an issue leading to abuse not being identified and/or challenged. It is impossible for one person to know everything about every different culture or faith, but we can be culturally competent in our approach. This means having an awareness of our practice so that although we try not to alienate the family, we are not being distracted by faith or culture, or losing sight of potential harm.

The over-riding question should always be: “What does this mean for this child – is it harming them/likely to harm them in any way?” If the answer is ‘Yes’ or ‘I think so’, then we need to take appropriate action.

Additional vulnerabilities

UNICEF identifies that both boys and girls are at risk of harmful practices, although girls are often at greater risk. It also notes that societies where harmful practices such as child marriage and female genital mutilation take place, often reflect values that hold girls in low esteem. 

In many cases, the vulnerable groups are the same as the groups vulnerable to other forms of abuse, e.g., those with additional needs, and children where there are other issues in the family home. However, harmful practices may also take place in households where no other issues are present other than the particular beliefs of the family and possibly the associated wider community.

Examples of harmful practices

Harmful practices is an umbrella term for many practices that take place as a result of belief systems. There are many different practices across the world, and therefore we have considered the most common.  More information can be found about each of these by following the links below:

What to do

As with all safeguarding matters, you must do something. You cannot pass it off as being “part of their culture” or worry about disrespecting the family’s beliefs. While different faiths/beliefs/communities/families have different practices, the definitions of physical, emotional and sexual abuse, and neglect still hold true.

It may be that you do not feel that you have enough knowledge or experience of a particular family’s culture or practice, however, all you need to ask yourself is: is this harming or likely to harm the child? There is always a duty to keep the child safe, but when dealing with any allegation of child abuse linked to faith, belief, and/or cultural practices, agencies must also engage with individuals, families and, in some cases, the wider communities to challenge the belief that underlies the harm. You may have a role in this, however, your primary focus remains the safety of the child.

If you have concerns, you must act immediately and speak with your designated safeguarding lead.

Note: In the case of FGM (in England and Wales), if a girl discloses that she has had FGM carried out on her, or what could be FGM has been seen by a teacher or regulated health or social care professional (e.g., during nappy-changing/other forms of intimate care or medical care), the said person has a mandatory duty to also report directly to the police on 101.

Ensure children/young people know the risks – talk about these issues at an age-appropriate level in the same way we do about consent, drugs and other issues.

Check children and young people have safe relationships – in their families, with their peers, and with staff. Create an environment where it’s okay to talk even about the most difficult things.

Know the signs and know what to do – use the checklists above, your safeguarding procedures and be confident in raising these issues as a possibility.

Take action – and keep taking action until you know children and young people are safe.

Free harmful practices poster


Download our harmful practices poster here:



To sign up to our monthly posters by post service, click below:


DSL Training Materials

  • Harmful Practices scenario (Primary school settings) – DSL Information sheet

  • Harmful Practices scenario (Care) – DSL Information sheet

  • Harmful Practices Scenario – Care

  • Harmful Practices scenario (SEND) – DSL Information sheet

  • Harmful Practices Scenario – SEND

  • Harmful Practices scenario (16+ settings) – DSL Information sheet

  • Harmful Practices Scenario (16+ settings)

  • Harmful Practices scenario (Secondary school settings) – DSL Information sheet

  • Harmful Practices Scenario (Secondary Schools)

  • Presentation

  • Harmful Practices Scenario (Primary Schools)

  • Harmful Practices Quiz

  • Harmful Practices Scenario – Early Years

  • Harmful Practices scenario (Early Years) – DSL Information sheet

  • Harmful Practices – Quiz (Answer Sheet)

  • Handout for staff

  • Presenter Notes


  • National FGM Centre – Harmful Practices

  • UNICEF – Harmful Practices

  • Breast Flattening Information

Save time and improve your safeguarding approach…

Bite-size training materials to share with your staff every month.

Support to explore and develop your safeguarding culture.

A huge array of resources and professional experience at your fingertips.

Get in touch now for a personal tour of the site and details of membership benefits.

Memberships start at just £99+VAT a term.

We look forward to working with you.