The criminalization of harmful practices may have an important deterrent effect. However, in many countries where the harmful practices discussed in this asset are prevalent, harmful practices have either only recently been criminalize or are still not criminalized.
When criminalizing harmful practices, it is important to consider the following:
- Does law enforcement have enough resources and capacity to appropriately implement the new criminal laws. If not, how will this be addressed?
- Do customary laws support or contradict such legislation? If contradictory, refer to Resolving Conflict with Customary and Religious Laws section above and ensure that supremacy of constitutional or national law protections provisions is clearly stated in the new legislation.
- Has awareness-raising has been conducted within the community to ensure that members are aware of the harmful consequences of the practice, the need to abandon it, and the fact that the practice will be criminalized under the new law.
- Is there approval within the community to allow a victim to take legal action against other community members who may be the perpetrators of the harmful practice?
- Would implementing a criminal law disproportionately affect and/or alienate one ethnic group?
- Will the way in which the new criminal offense be implemented be in the best interests of the girl child? This is particularly important considering that many harmful practices, such as female genital mutilation or breast ironing, are perpetrated by or supported by the victims’ parents or care-takers, and criminal penalties such as long jail sentences may have significant effect on the interests of the child victim.
Criminalization can take place by either enacting a law specifically prohibiting the practice, as was done with FGM in Senegal, or through the use of general criminal law provisions that assign penalties for various actions including the specific harmful practice at issue, as was done in France with FGM. Governments choosing the latter must make special efforts to educate the public that what was legal one day could result in criminal prosecution the next.
In any event, legislation criminalizing specific harmful practices should only be enacted with a corresponding broader governmental strategy to change the underlying social customs and individual beliefs in which these practices are so deeply entrenched.