An international conference to press for the eradication of female genital mutilation in Africa and around the world opened in Kenya Thursday.

"In the morning, I was dragged and pinned on the ground, when three women sat and crucified me on the floor. I cried 'til I had no voice. The only thing I said was, 'mom, where are you?' And the only answer I got was, 'quiet, quiet girl.' My dear parent, is this what I really deserve? I'm asking all of you in this hall, is this really what girls really deserve?"

Kenyan schoolgirl Fazia Hassan, 13, told the ambassadors, activists, health workers, policy-makers and others gathered for the three-day conference what it is like to be forcibly circumcised at the age of 11.

The African and European speakers who followed her at the opening session stressed that female genital mutilation is a human rights violation that goes against international conventions, and must be made illegal everywhere.

The practice, in which part, or all, of a girl's or woman's genitalia are removed, is usually performed as a rite of passage into adulthood and a pre-requisite for marriage.

A goodwill ambassador to the United Nations, Somali fashion model Waris Dirie, said female genital mutilation, or FGM, has often been associated with culture and religion, but in reality is a widespread sign of women's greater economic, social and political repression.

"The U.N. estimate[s] that two million girls are mutilated every year in Africa," said Ms. Dirie. "That means, only today, 6,000 girls have to undergo this crime practice, 6,000 tomorrow, and 6,000 lives are ruined day by day. Let me be very clear on this: FGM is not tradition; FGM is not cultural; FGM has nothing to do with religion; FGM is nothing but a crime."

Kenyan Minister of Home Affairs Linah Kilimo said that, in Kenya, about 38 percent of Kenyan women have undergone the procedure. She said, in some rural areas, or among particular ethnic groups, up to 90 percent of women are cut.

Age-old practices and beliefs are hard to change, and, Ms. Kilimo says, those attempting to do so often meet with great resistance, in Kenya and elsewhere.

"Indeed, it appears that politicians fear losing votes as a result," she said. "Indeed, those who speak against F.G.M. risk isolation by their peers."

The three-day conference is sponsored by the Kenyan government and an international advocacy group called, No Peace Without Justice.

Organizers say the purpose of the gathering is to come up with ways to implement an African Union protocol, adopted in 2003 in Maputo, Mozambique, which, among other things, outlaws all forms of female genital mutilation.

Many of the African Union's 53 member-states are in the process of signing the protocol.