Young Maasai girls study at a church shelter after escaping from communities where female circumcision is practiced, near Narok, Kenya, September, 2011. (Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty)
Fewer young women are undergoing female genital cutting compared to their mothers, a U.N. study revealed on Monday, but the practice is so persistent that despite legislation against it, more than 30 million girls, most in northern African nations, are at risk of receiving the procedure over the next decade.
The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) estimates 125 million women of all ages in 29 countries surveyed for the report have already undergone some form of genital cutting. One in five lives in Egypt, the second-most populous Muslim country in Africa.
But the study reveals that the practice may be gradually decreasing. Less young women across all of the sample countries have undergone the procedure than women in born in the previous generation.
In Egypt, for example, 81 percent of 15- to 19-year-old women have undergone the procedure. Among women in their 40s, the rate was 96 percent.
"It is important to remember that this report is not an analysis of a specific programmatic approach, but a set of data to inform recommendations and steps needed to end the practice, as well as identify trends," said Molly Melching, executive director of Tostan, a human rights organization headquartered in Senegal that aims to address cutting with "nonformal education" that callenges social norms and pushes for legislation to curb the practice.
Other analysts noted that the report does not represent a major change in cutting trends in many African nations.
"The absolute numbers are still pretty high. None of us would want to be one of those girls," said Martha Saavedra, associate director of the University of California, Berkeley Center for African Studies.
The procedure – which typically involves cutting off parts of the female genitals and, in some cultures, the sewing together of the labia – is believed to prevent extramarital sexual activity. In nearly half of the countries counted in the report, women are often under the age of five when the procedure is performed, the UN reports.
A majority of women where female genital cutting is practiced believe the custom should end, the study said.
Egypt banned all forms of female genital cutting in 2007, decades after feminists like author and physician Nawal El-Saadawi mounted civic campaigns to end the practice.
"Just passing a law doesn't do much," Saavedra said.
"Mothers might think this is a good thing for their daughters. As far as they are concerned, it's essential in order to be marriageable," she added. "How do you create a system where you can assure [parents] that their daughters can be married [without female genital cutting]?"
African feminists have long aimed to change public views on female genital cutting. In her 1977 book "The Hidden Face of Eve," Saadawi described how she underwent female genital mutilation in the bathroom of her childhood home.
Traditional practitioners perform most procedures, outside of formal medical care facilities, according to the U.N. report.
The practice is not specific to Muslims, although it is prevalent in many Muslim-majority nations in Africa, as well as Yemen and Iraq. In Niger, 55 percent of Christian women had undergone the procedure, while two percent of Muslim women there have experienced some form of cutting.
The practice is almost universal in Benin and Ghana, where 93 percent of all women have experienced a form of genital cutting.