Female circumcision/cutting, more usually referred to as female genital mutilation, is one of the most political areas of women's health. Worldwide it is estimated that well over 120 million women have been subjected to it.
Supporters of the practice say it is done for cultural and religious reasons, but opponents say that not only is it potentially life-threatening - it is also an extreme form of oppression of women.
Those who persist in the practice in Senegal will now face a prison term of between one and five years.
Female circumcision is mainly carried out in western and southern Asia, the Middle East and large areas of Africa. It is also known to take place among immigrant communities in the USA, Canada, France, Australia and Britain, where it is illegal. In total it is estimated that two million girls a year are subjected to genital mutilation.
There Are Three Main Types Of Circumcision:
The removal of the tip of the clitoris; Total removal of the clitoris and surrounding labia;The removal of the clitoris and labia and the sewing up of the vagina, leaving only a small opening for urine and menstrual blood - a process known as infibulation.
So drastic is the mutilation involved in the latter operation that young brides have to be cut open to allow penetration on their wedding night and are customarily sewn up afterwards.
Why Is It Carried Out?
The aim of the process is to ensure the woman is faithful to her future husband. Some communities consider girls ineligible for marriage if they have not been circumcised.
Girls as young as three undergo the process, but the age at which the operation is performed varies according to country and culture.
However, girls who have not been circumcised are considered "unclean" in many cultures, and can be treated as harlots by other women. Many men believe the folklore which says they will die if their penis touches a clitoris.
Video On Female Circumcision
What Are The Risks?
Health workers say that the operation is often carried out in unsanitary conditions. Razor blades, scissors, kitchen knives and even pieces of glass are used, often on more than one girl, which increases the risk of infection. Anaesthesia is rarely used. Some girls die as a result of haemorraging, septicemia and shock. It can also lead to long-term urinary and reproductive problems.
What Is The Future?
Due to health campaigns, female circumcision has been falling in some countries in the last decade. In Kenya, a 1991 survey found that 78% of teenagers had been circumcised, compared to 100% of women over 50. In Sudan, the practice dropped by 10% between 1981 and 1990.
Several governments have introduced legislation to ensure the process is only carried out in hospitals by trained doctors.
Other countries such as Egypt have banned the operation altogether, but there is significant opposition to change because of the traditional nature of the process. Health workers think a less confrontational approach which combines education with an understanding of the thinking behind female genital mutilation, such as Ntanira Na Mugambo, could be more successful.
Ntanira Na Mugambo, also known as 'circumcision by words', has been developed in rural areas of Kenya by local and international women's health organisations.
It involves a week-long programme of community education about the negative effects of female genital mutilation, culminating in a coming of age ceremony for young women.
The young women are secluded for a week and undergo classes in reproduction, anatomy, hygiene, respect for adults, developing self-esteem and dealing with peer pressure.
Family members also undergo health education sessions and men in the community are taught about the negative effects of female circumcision.
Health workers believe the programme works because it does not exert a blunt prohibition on female genital mutilation, but offers an attractive alternative.