LONDON, Feb 6 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Female genital mutilation could be eradicated as quickly as footbinding was in the last century, Britain's crime prevention minister Lynne Featherstone said on Friday, but warned there was still a long way to go in tackling the barbaric ritual.
"If people were cutting off half of men's penises - which is the actual equivalent - this is a practice that wouldn't have lasted four minutes let alone 4,000 years," Featherstone said in an interview on International Day of Zero Tolerance to FGM.
"I think change can happen quite fast. We saw it with Chinese footbinding - once it started to end it ended really quickly."
Featherstone, who has spearheaded British efforts to end FGM, was speaking on the sidelines of a London conference in which the government announced new measures and funding to tackle FGM.
Measures include requiring family doctors to record FGM, a new system allowing clinicians to flag up children at potential risk and better FGM training for health workers.
An estimated 137,000 women and girls in England and Wales are living with the effects of FGM and around 60,000 could be at risk, according to a recent study.
Health professionals should remember they are protecting girls "who have no voice, no choice and no control in their lives," the minister said.
"I can think of no one more vulnerable than a young girl having her clitoris and labia cut off, which will not only give her physical problems and mental health challenges, but is also (an abuse of) her rights. Who can take away a girl's sexual pleasure for the rest of her life?"
The conference follows controversy over Britain's first FGM prosecution which ended in the acquittal of the defendants amid claims they had been made scapegoats in a show trial.
The case, which centred on the way a doctor had stitched a woman after delivering her baby, drew fury from medics who warned it would leave doctors afraid to help women with FGM.
But Featherstone defended the decision to prosecute. She said the "shockwaves sent through the medical profession" would help doctors ensure that they understood their duties in relation to FGM.
She said prosecutions for FGM sent "a strong message that it is illegal, it is child abuse, it is a violation against women".
SUPPORT FOR AFRICA
Police and prosecutors are under huge pressure to bring someone to justice for FGM which has been illegal in Britain for 30 years.
However, Featherstone said she was much keener on prevention than prosecution. "As much as we need prosecutions we are never going to solve this by putting 20,000 sets of parents in prison. The answer will be behaviour change," she added.
Featherstone said work with communities in Britain could impact global efforts to end FGM.
Around 140 million women and girls worldwide have undergone FGM, which involves the total or partial removal of the clitoris and external genitalia. In extreme cases the vaginal opening is sewn closed.
Some believe it purifies the girl and see it as an important gateway to marriage. It is practised by communities across many African countries and in pockets of Asia and the Middle East.
"What we do in Britain has a huge impact. Our diaspora are closely linked to their mother countries in Africa," said Featherstone, who launched a 35 million pound ($53 million) programme to tackle FGM in Africa last year.
"We won't end it in the United Kingdom unless we can help support to end it in Africa."
(Editing by Ros Russell)
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