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Saturday, 25 November, 2000, 01:21 GMT
'Thousands suffer mutilation each day'
Genital mutilation is widespread in Africa
By Flora Botsford in Valencia

An international conference on violence against women has heard that every day 6,000 young girls suffer genital mutilation - the ritual often referred to as female circumcision.

The practice is widespread in Africa and has also been documented in parts of the Middle East, South Asia and among immigrant communities elsewhere.

The conference also heard the European perspective on the practice, as Western governments try to get to grips with the issues involved.

Naheed Toubia, who was the first woman surgeon in Sudan, and who now runs an organisation campaigning for the bodily integrity of women, described the practice of female genital cutting as a human rights violation.

She told the conference that 130 million women and girls worldwide have undergone the ritual and at least two million girls a year are at risk.

'Basic violation'

While the intention is not to mutilate or harm them the practice is clearly a basic violation, she argued, because they are usually too young or powerless to have a say.

Anti-circumcision campaigner
Campaigners in Africa face an uphill struggle
Ms Toubia said it was common in 28 African countries in the sub-Saharan and north-eastern regions - in Sudan, around 90% of women have had their genitals cut.

She believes women's empowerment and education are the keys to preventing it - the ritual will survive as long as men in some communities seek to control women and women's sexuality.

Europe acts

With increasing immigration to European countries from Africa, many Western governments are tackling the issue for the first time.

France was the first country to bring charges of female genital mutilation against members of the African immigrant community, even though in France there is no specific legislation against the practice.

French lawyer Linda Weil-Curiel told the conference that the number of known excisions in France had decreased since the first cases came to court, proving, she argued, the deterrent effect of legal action.

In the first case of its kind, in February 1999, a young woman brought charges against the person who performed the cutting ritual and her own mother, both of whom were given prison sentences.

Other parents were forced to pay compensation to the victims.

Culture of silence

Other countries with specific legislation against female genital mutilation, like the United States, Switzerland, Britain and Sweden, face different problems.

YIva Sorman Nath of Sweden presented a study of her country's Somalian community entitled "Nobody asked me".

Circumcised women and girls now found themselves living in a country where the practice is a criminal offence and totally unaccepted.

As a result, a culture of silence had grown around them which could only be broken down with education and training for health workers, counsellors and teachers.

This conference has also heard speeches on women in war, domestic violence and the sex trade.

It concludes on Saturday with a declaration on measures to create a world free of violence for women.

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See also:

20 Nov 00 | Middle East
Arab women demand equal opportunities
17 Nov 00 | Scotland
Women fear transport safety
10 Nov 00 | Asia-Pacific
Timor women 'kept as sex slaves'
20 Nov 00 | South Asia
South Asian sexism 'among the worst'
24 Nov 00 | South Asia
Frontier sex-trade vigil
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