The history of female circumcision, also called female genital cutting or mutilation, is unclear. Some say it's a religious requirement for Islamic women, while others point out that the practice pre-dates the spread of Islam. The practice is controversial in many countries. Westerners decry the practice, yet, it persists in many African and Islamic countries because of strong cultural support.
Now, new research finds the practice is losing support in one large country - Egypt. In that country, historical evidence indicates that female cutting has been done since the time of the pharaohs. Traditionally, it's been seen as a requirement to make girls marriageable.
But the current government in Egypt banned female circumcision in the 1990s and strengthened the restriction in 2007 after a high-profile case where a 12-year-old girl died after the ritual.
However, female circumcision is still widespread, says Ann Way, a researcher with the organization Measure DHS, which has been collecting information on the practice since 1995.
"The prevalence of circumcision among ever-married women at that point was over 90 percent," Way says.
Measure DHS helps countries calculate vital statistics by doing large surveys, often repeated over the course of years. Way and her colleagues asked women about female circumcision again in 2000, and most recently, last year. She says they are starting to see a reduction in the number of young women who have been circumcised.
"We have seen the rates drop from over 90 [percent] in older women, women aged 25 and older, to just around 80 percent in the age group 15 to 19," she says.
Influential leaders raising questions
The government ban, along with the well-publicized deaths, led some people - most importantly women and religious leaders - to start questioning the practice.
"I think the government and, you know, a number of other organizations have clearly been supporting campaigns which have been directed towards changing people's support for circumcision," Way says.
"You know, at the time of our first survey in 1995, where we looked at the percentage supporting female circumcision, wanting the practice to continue, about eight in 10 ever-married women at that point wanted the practice to continue. In the most recent survey it was only about six in 10 women."
Interestingly, fewer wealthy girls and women currently have the practice performed on them. Only about a third of girls in the wealthiest 20 percent of Egypt's population will be circumcised by the time they're 18. In contrast, in the poorest 20 percent, about three-quarters of the girls will end up circumcised.
Way says attitudes and practices change slowly. She says even if fewer girls are circumcised, it will take time for the total number of adult women who have been circumcised to drop.
Her data is published on the Measure DHS Web site.