SHE rates fall for African girls, but teens are still at risk

Female genital mutilation has drastically decreased among African children this century, research shows, but campaigners said Wednesday that teenagers and young women were at risk of harmful practices.

Known as FGM, female genital mutilation is a ritual that usually includes the partial or complete removal of the external genitals, including the clitoris.

Cutting is a rite of passage in many societies, often with the aim of promoting chastity. It can cause chronic pain, menstrual problems, recurrent urinary tract infections, cysts and infertility. Some girls bleed to death or die from infections. It can also cause fatal complications during delivery in later life.

Analysis of data spread over more than 20 years, BMJ Global Health said in a study there was a "huge and significant decline" in FGM among children under 14 in Africa.

East Africa had the largest decrease in prevalence rates, falling to 8 percent in 2016 from 71 percent in 1995, according to the BMJ study published Tuesday.

In North Africa, the prevalence in 2015 dropped from almost 60 percent in 1990 to 14 percent, according to the report; West Africa fell to around 25 percent in 2017, from 74 percent in 1996.

UNICEF, the U.N. children's agency, estimates that 200 million women and girls worldwide have undergone FGM, with the highest prevalence in Africa and parts of the Middle East.

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Campaigners welcomed the decline but said that female genital mutilation also affects teenagers and young women, demographic groups outside the research.

"We are pleased to see that figures are decreasing in many countries," said Emma Lightowlers, a spokesperson for campaign group 28TooMany, who is conducting research into FGM in Africa. "But it does not tell the whole story and there are other groups where cutting takes place after the age of 14. It takes place in teenagers, or even in women who are preparing for marriage," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Julia Lalla-Maharajh, founder of the Orchid project, campaigning against genital cutting, agreed with this.

"Growing efforts to put an end to practice have an impact [but] girls in this group can still be cut as they grow older, "she said in an e-mail to the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Although girls under 14 are most at risk, the study should also include those from 15 to 19 years old, said the British charity Forward, which supports VGM survivors from African communities.

"These data should not make us complacent to say that all those girls are not at risk," said Naana Otoo-Oyortey, head of Forward. "We must ensure that these girls are supported and protected against FGM."