A new study by the World Health Organization shows women who have had female genital mutilation experience great difficulties during childbirth and their babies are more likely to die as a result of this practice. The study involved more than 28,000 women in six African countries - Burkina Faso, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal and Sudan.
This is the biggest study ever done on the effects of female genital mutilation, or FGM. The World Health Organization says the study provides, for the first time, clear evidence of the harmful effects of this practice on women and babies.
FGM is commonly practiced in 28 countries in Africa among both Islamic and Christian communities. It also occurs in Indonesia, Malaysia, Bahrain and other countries in the Middle East and among nomads in Iraq and Israel.
Director of WHO's reproductive health research, Paul Van Look, says FGM is a horrible practice that leads to serious complications for young girls.
"Even to us who were to some extent familiar with it, the findings were quite shocking," said Paul Van Look. "This is clearly a practice that is dangerous for mothers and deadly for babies. This study provides those of us who have been advocating against this practice with further evidence that this must stop."
Female Genital Mutilation involves partial or total removal of the external female genitalia. It is done for cultural or traditional reasons. WHO estimates more than 100 million women and girls are estimated to have had this procedure. And, every year, it says another three million girls, usually under age 10, are at risk.
The study says women who have been subjected to the most serious form of FGM - total removal of the genitalia - will have on average 30 percent more caesarean sections compared to those who have not been cut. There also is a 70 percent increase in the number of women who suffer from postpartum hemorrhage.
The study also finds a much higher death rate among babies born to mothers with FGM. In Africa, the study says, an additional 10 to 20 babies die per one thousand deliveries as a result of the practice.
In some countries, there is a growing trend for female genital mutilation to be performed by medical personnel in sanitized hospital settings. WHO Assistant Director-General Joy Phumaphi calls this totally unacceptable.
"By medicalizing it, we will be endorsing this practice, this violation of a child's body and the basic human right of an individual," said Joy Phumaphi. "And, I think that is the worst possible thing that we could possibly do. In fact it is even worse than turning a blind eye, as far as I'm concerned because you are actually legitimizing a violation of a basic human right and violence against an innocent human being."
The health experts point out that female genital mutilation has no basis in religious teaching. They say it persists because most of the victims are poor, illiterate, rural women who have no political clout.
But they say people power can turn this situation around. WHO official Heli Bathija says a grassroots movement to stop female genital mutilation began in a village in Senegal about seven years ago,
"And by this time, there is more than 1,600 villages that have now publicly declared that we have stopped this practice," said Heli Bathija. "We do not want to do it anymore. And, that is something huge about what happened."
The WHO official says there is hope that female genital mutilation soon will be completely stopped in Senegal.