* Niger outlawed female genital mutilation in 2003
* Rate at about 2 percent from about 5 percent in late 1990s
* Ceremony sponsored by government, NGOs and UNICEF
By Abdoulaye Massalatchi
MAKALONDI, Niger, May 16 (Reuters) - About 14,000 villagers from 20 communities in Niger took a public vow to end female genital mutilation (FGM) and forced under-age marriage as the West African country's government steps up its fight against such abuses.
Though Niger outlawed the practice in 2003, FGM and other violent treatment of young women remain prevalent among some ethnic groups in the impoverished Sahel nation, which ranks bottom of the United Nations' world development index.
At a ceremony in Makalondi, about 85 km (53 miles) west of the capital Niamey, villagers threw scissors, knives and blades into a pit in the village square which was then filled in.
Participants in the ceremony, sponsored by Niger's government and non-governmental groups including U.N. child agency UNICEF, also vowed to end forced early marriages and the removal of young girls from schools.
About 38 percent of girls in Niger are married off before the age of 15, according to official statistics.
Niger's minister for population, women and child protection, said the government was determined to end such practices.
"The government is aware of its responsibilities," Maikibi Kadidiatou Dan Dobi said during the ceremony on Wednesday.
FGM is the partial or total removal of external female genitalia and leads to physical and psychological problems including painful sex and childbirth, infections, infertility and incontinence.
It is done for religious and cultural reasons and is prevalent in 28 African nations and parts of the Middle East and Asia, notably Yemen, Iraqi Kurdistan and Indonesia.
The United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution in December urging countries to ban the practice, calling it an "irreparable, irreversible abuse" that threatens about three million girls annually.
The World Health Organization estimates 140 million girls and women have undergone FGM.
In Niger, the practice is still common among certain ethnic groups such as the Gourmantche where about 65 percent of girls have undergone FGM. The rate is around 13 percent among the Peuls and about 3 percent among Nigerien Arab girls.
The overall national rate has slipped to about 2 percent from about 5 percent in the late 1990s, according to UNICEF.
Despite the public vows, there could be a resurgence of the practice if other measures to tackle poverty, raise the female education rate and end early forced marriages were not adopted, said Hassane Boubacar, a local teacher.
"We must ensure that people who give up the practice, do not relapse. As long as there is poverty the villages, the risk of the practice restarting exists," he said.
Niger is the world's No. 4 uranium producer and began producing crude oil in 2011 but about 61 percent of its nearly 17 million people live in poverty and face food shortages due to perennial drought. (Writing by Bate Felix; Editing by Louise Ireland)
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