Harmful practices

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

Harmful practices can cover, amongst other forms of abuse, child marriage, forced marriage, female genital mutilation, breast flattening, hate crimes, 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 perseverance in society means that they stop being seen as abusive and start to be seen as acceptable and 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.

Definition of harmful practices

Harmful practices are persistent practices and behaviours that are grounded on 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

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Culture and safeguarding

That something is linked to a person’s faith or culture is not an excuse for child abuse.  Whilst we should be aware that culture and faith is 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 identify “… 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 not possible 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 we do not alienate the family, but not being distracted by faith or culture meaning that we loose sight of potential harm.  The over-riding question should always be “what does this mean for this child?”

Vulnerable groups

Unicef identify that both boys and girls are at risk of harmful practices, although girls are often at greater risk.  They also note that in every society where harmful practices take place they 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, 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 it being because of the beliefs to the family and associated wider community.


  • National FGM Centre – Harmful Practices

    Link to the National FGM Centre website where more information about harmful practices can be found along with other examples of harmful practices not covered here.

  • Child abuse linked to faith, belief and culture

    Video (6 minutes) produced by the London Safeguarding Children Board looking at the issues of faith, belief and culture and what this means with regards to protecting children from harm.

  • Child abuse linked to faith or belief: national action plan

    Information for those who work with children on a plan to help prevent child abuse arising from religion or superstition.

  • Unicef – Harmful Practices

    Link to the Unicef website where harmful practices are discussed and Unicef set out what Unicef’s response.

  • Breast Flattening Information

    Information from the National FGM Centre about breast flattening and its consequences.