To mark the fourth-annual International Day of Zero Tolerance of female genital mutilation, the U.N. Children's Fund is calling for stronger action to end a practice it says causes enormous physical and psychological damage to millions of girls. This practice mainly occurs in sub-Saharan Africa, Sudan, Somalia, and Egypt.
UNICEF reports every year, three million girls in 28 countries on the African continent undergo female genital mutilation. It notes thousands of girls in immigrant communities in Europe, North America, and Australia also are subjected to this ordeal. Globally, it says between 100 million and 140 million girls and women have been cut or mutilated.
Despite some progress, UNICEF Spokesman Damien Personnaz says it is very difficult to stop female genital mutilation because it continues to have community support. Also, he says governments lack the political will to tackle this issue.
He says UNICEF has conducted surveys in African villages that show men usually are not the ones who insist on this tradition being carried out.
"It is mostly women's traditions which basically said 'I have gone through this practice and I would like my daughter', but mostly my grand-great daughter to do the same. It is not really also an issue on mothers because most of the mothers do not really welcome these practices to be done on their daughters," said Personnaz. "But, they are sometimes forced by communities and especially by their own mothers, their grandmothers and aunties to make sure that this practice is going on."
Contrary to common belief, he says there is no religious basis for female genital mutilation. It is an age-old tradition adhered to by many communities that consider it a prerequisite for marriage.
Most girls are cut between infancy and their 14th birthday. UNICEF statistics find on average, a girl or young woman is subjected every 15 seconds to genital mutilation, a practice that causes excruciating pain.
Personnaz say the consequences for girls and women are physically and psychologically devastating.
"You can quickly die from an infection of this practice because most of the time it is not done properly," he added. "It is done with something taken from the bush and the knife is rusty. So there is a very high risk that this girl can be infected. Then you have long-term psychological effects and it also is extremely painful for the girl."
UNICEF says it is important to have laws against female genital mutilation. But, prosecuting people who do the cutting only has a limited affect.
The U.N. children's agency says a more productive way to eliminate this practice is to raise awareness in the community about its harmfulness. It says it is crucial to enlist the support of traditional chiefs, religious leaders, and men to encourage communities to abandon this tradition.
UNICEF says these measures have achieved progress in countries such as Senegal, Egypt, and Sudan.