It is known as female genital mutilation, a practice that is prevalent in many countries. There are laws against it, but that is not enough to resolve what has become a complex global issue.
It is the focus of growing debate in Africa and Asia where it is most practised. But it is also an issue in the West, with tens of thousands of cases among immigrant communities.
France is one of many countries where it is banned. Action is also tough here, with more than a hundred prosecutions for mutilation carried out on French soil.
Legislation also covers cases where girls are sent abroad to states where the cutting of the female external genitalia is still legal.
Euronews met the Senegalese-born author Khady Koïta, who has campaigned for many years on the issue in Paris. A mother of four, now based in Brussels, she recounted her own experience at the age of seven.
“Two women got hold of me and dragged me into the room,” she says in her book “Mutilée”, which means mutilated in English. “One of them, behind me, held my head and crushed her knees down onto my shoulders with all her force to stop me from moving. My howls of pain still ring in my ears. I cried and screamed.”
“This violence inflicted on the body of a child, I did not understand it. Nobody warned me it was coming – neither my older sisters, nor my older girlfriends. No one. It was totally unjust, pure cruelty, because it was inexplicable. What was I being punished for?”
Khady told Right On: “The psychological consequences are very very significant because they last a lifetime. And there are times when it really leads us towards depression. But in our culture, depression does not exist, or did not exist before – so it’s just like a brief period when things are not great. But I make the link between all of that and the mutilation. And obviously it has consequences in my personal life, in my sex life, and in my life as a woman. And so for me the after-effects are with me for life.”
She added: “Rage is what I continue to feel, as well as incomprehension, with all the progress we have around the world, in lots of areas. But why does progress on this stop? Why don’t our attitudes change? That’s what makes me angry.”
It is difficult for authorities to know the real extent of sexual mutilation in the West.
But here in France, for example, doctors and other professionals are obliged to report any cases, with privacy laws lifted if they do.
Someone who understands what campaigners are up against is a singer from Mali, forced to leave his country because of threats over a song he wrote that says sexual mutilation is wrong.
Bafing Kul says music can bring about change through young people, but more men must also speak out.
He told Right On: “I do not like the term, but in the patriarchal society the man is the head of the family. And even if I want to change that in Mali, for the moment it’s a patriarchal society. So it’s very important that men get involved to change things, because this battle will not be won in Mali if men do not join the fight. And that goes for the whole world.
“After all, the battle against mutilation is not just a women’s issue. It also concerns us as men. It’s a human rights issue. Everyone is concerned. So it’s very important that men get involved.”
A few years ago Bafing went back to Mali to make a short film about the issue, talking with people in the street.
One man in the film says: “It is useful to keep women loyal.” Another man says: “It would be a disaster to stop it, because women would take too much pleasure.” Another says: “It’s not only because of religion. Tradition demands it.” A woman tells Bafing: “Women must be cut, otherwise they would go wild.” A young man says: “In our village, you should not raise this issue if you want to stay safe. It’s a very old custom.” Religion often comes up. “To me it’s a purely religious matter,” says a woman. Another man adds: “My religion obliges me. I would do it for all my daughters if it’s God’s will.”
Euronews’ Seamus Kearney reported: “It’s estimated genital mutilation affects one in every three females in Africa. Here in Europe, France alone talks about at least 65,000 cases.”
Critics say no religion demands female genital cutting, and it is more of a criminal matter than cultural. They say awareness campaigns must be backed up with the enforcement of tough laws.
Linda Weil-Curiel, a lawyer at the Commission for the Abolition of Sexual Mutilation, told Right On: “You can say it and repeat it to families for 30 years not to do it. But if they’re not worried the long arm of the law is behind them, they’ll do whatever they want. I know that being scared of going to prison, and the fear of being punished in court, is what results in a lot of families becoming careful and protective of their children.”
Isabelle Gillette-Faye, the director of the women’s rights group GAMS, said: “Education plays a fundamental role. If we take countries in Africa, when the number of people being educated increases, even in terms of the basics of reading and writing, we see a fall in the number of daughters repeating the practice carried out by their mothers.”
‘Our daughters will not be mutilated’ is a message campaigners hope will catch on.
It is a difficult fight though, but a recent historic UN vote condemning the practice puts new pressure on politicians everywhere to do more to stop it.