Known as FGM, female genital mutilation is a ritual that usually involves the partial or total removal of the external genitalia, 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 hemorrhage to death or die from infections. It can also cause fatal childbirth complications in later life.
Analyzing data spanning more than 20 years, BMJ Global Health said in a study there was a "huge and significant decline" in FGM in children under 14 across Africa.
East Africa had the biggest fall in its prevalence rates, dropping to 8 percent in 2016 from 71 percent in 1995, according to the BMJ study published Tuesday.
In north Africa, prevalence rates fell to 14 percent in 2015 from nearly 60 percent in 1990, the report said; west Africa dropped to about 25 percent in 2017, from 74 percent in 1996.
UNICEF, the U.N. children’s agency, estimates that 200 million women and girls globally have undergone FGM, with the highest prevalence in Africa and parts of the Middle East.
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Campaigners welcomed the drop but said FGM also affects teenagers and young women, demographic groups outside the study.
"We are pleased to see that the numbers are coming down in a lot of countries," said Emma Lightowlers, a spokeswoman for campaign group 28TooMany, which does research on FGM in Africa. "But it doesn't tell the whole story and there are other groups where cutting takes place after the age of 14. It takes place in teenagers, or in fact, even in women in preparation for marriage," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Julia Lalla-Maharajh, founder of the Orchid Project, which campaigns against female genital cutting, agreed.
"Growing efforts to end the practice are having an impact [but] girls in this group may still be cut when they get older," she said in an email to the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Although girls under 14 are most at risk, research should include those aged 15 to 19, said British-based charity Forward, which supports FGM survivors from African communities.
"This data should not make us complacent to say that all those girls are risk-free," said Naana Otoo-Oyortey, head of Forward. "We need to work towards ensuring these girls are supported and protected from FGM."