Campaigners against female circumcision have scored a major victory with the approval by a United Nations committee of a resolution calling for a global ban on female genital mutilation (FGM).
The resolution, adopted by consensus by the UN general assembly's human rights committee, calls the practice harmful and a serious threat to the psychological, sexual and reproductive health of women and girls.
It calls on the UN's 193 member states to condemn the practice and launch educational campaigns for girls and boys, women and men, to eliminate it. It also urges all countries to enact and enforce legislation to prohibit FGM, to protect women and girls "from this form of violence" and to end impunity for violators.
With 110 sponsors the resolution is virtually certain to be approved by the full general assembly, which is expected to take it up in the second half of December. Although not legally binding, assembly resolutions reflect international concerns and carry moral and political weight.
Italy's UN ambassador, Cesare Maria Ragaglini, who has been working with African partners for a ban, called the resolution "a breakthrough in the international campaign to end the harmful practice of FGM".
"I think that together we can change the fate of many young girls around the world, and today this goal appears closer than ever," he said. "The resolution, in condemning the practice and promoting social and educational programmes, is … the beginning of a new journey."
FGM is a centuries-old practice used to control women's sexuality in some religions, although both Muslim and Christian leaders have spoken out against it.
The procedure involves the removal of the clitoris and sometimes also other genital parts, usually in childhood or early adolescence. It can lead to infection, painful sexual intercourse, complications in childbirth, and eliminates any pleasure for women during sex.
The UN said in 2010 that about 70 million girls and women had undergone the procedure, and the World Health Organisation said about 6,000 girls were circumcised every day.
According to Amnesty International, FGM is commonplace in 28 countries in Africa as well as in Yemen, Iraq, Malaysia, Indonesia and among certain ethnic groups in South America, but it is also a worldwide concern because it is also practised by some immigrant groups in diaspora communities.
José Luis Diaz, Amnesty International's UN representative, said this was the first time the general assembly's human rights committee has addressed the problem.
"FGM is an indictment of us all that a girl or young woman can be held down and mutilated is a violation of her human rights and, shockingly, an estimated 3 million girls are at risk each year," he said.
Alvilda Jablonko, co-ordinator of the FGM programme at the organisation No Peace Without Justice, applauded the committee's action as "a landmark step in the international campaign to foster global leadership" in the campaign against the practice.