By Emma Batha
LONDON, Jan 30 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A global drive to eradicate female genital mutilation (FGM), a custom commonly associated with Africa, will fail unless efforts are extended to tackle the hidden ritual in parts of Asia and the Middle East, campaigners have warned.
Activists attending a major conference on FGM opening in Rome on Monday called for U.N. agencies and governments to start focusing attention beyond Africa.
"It seems to be a much, much larger problem than people thought it was five years ago," said Isis Elgibali of WADI, a German charity working to end FGM in the Middle East.
"I have the feeling that it happens all over the world, but it's not always easy to conduct research."
FGM usually involves the total or partial removal of the external genitalia. Sometimes the vaginal opening is also stitched closed. Other forms common in parts of Asia involve pricking or nicking the clitoris.
The U.N. children's agency UNICEF estimates that worldwide around 200 million girls have undergone FGM, which often causes serious physical and psychological problems.
But campaigners say this is an underestimate because it is only based on data from 27 African countries along with Yemen, Iraqi Kurdistan and Indonesia.
"I know I'm not included in that statistic of 200 million," said Mariya Taher, co-founder of Asian anti-FGM group Sahiyo, who was cut as a seven-year-old in India.
"Being included is being able to have your story told, and there may be millions of women out there whose stories aren't told."
Survivors of FGM in India and Singapore have recently broken the silence around the practice in their communities, while academic studies have revealed the ritual also exists in parts of Iran and Dagestan in Russia.
Elgibali said her work with refugees arriving in Germany indicated some Syrians also practised FGM.
FGM is rooted in the wish to control female sexuality but practices and beliefs vary enormously.
It may be done in the name of religion or culture. Many believe it confers social status and is a pre-requisite for marriage. Others may cite reasons of hygiene. Some see it as a rite of passage, others not.
Anti-FGM group Orchid Project lists 10 Asian countries and nine Middle Eastern countries where there is evidence FGM exists including Pakistan, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Malaysia and Thailand.
More than 30 organisations have launched a petition calling on the United Nations to examine the impact of FGM in Asia.
World leaders have pledged to eliminate FGM by 2030 under the U.N. global development goals agreed in 2015.
"We need to count it (FGM) in all countries," said Taher of the group Sahiyo. "If we don't look at what's happening in every country we can't achieve that goal."
Delegates attending the three-day BanFGM conference in Rome include grassroots activists from across the world, ministers, U.N. agencies and legal experts.
Asian and Middle Eastern campaigners urged the United Nations, governments and donor countries to fund data collection and research in their regions.
"Right now in India our biggest problem is that we do not have any data," said Indian activist Masooma Ranalvi, who was cut at 7 years old and is now pressing India to pass a law banning FGM.
"Data collection and research is essential because the entire discourse on FGM up to now has centred on Africa.
"Africa of course needs attention but maybe there are other places where the focus can be spread to."
(Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.)
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.