By Robert Preidt
WEDNESDAY, Nov. 7, 2018 (HealthDay News) -- Female genital mutilation/cutting has declined sharply in most of Africa, but the practice is still widespread in western Asia, a new study finds.
Researchers analyzed data collected in 29 countries in Africa, as well as in western Asia (Iraq and Yemen) between 1990 and 2017.
The greatest declines among girls up to the age of 14 were in: East Africa, from 71 percent in 1995 to 8 percent in 2016; North Africa, from just under 58 percent in 1990 to just over 14 percent in 2015; and West Africa, from 74 percent in 1996 to 25 percent in 2017.
In western Asia, however, the practice has continued to grow. It was up 1 percent in 1997 and just under 16 percent in 2013, according to the study published Nov. 6 in the journal BMJ Global Health.
Female genital mutilation (FGM) is done to ensure premarital virginity and marital fidelity, according to the World Health Organization, which opposes the practice. It also is associated with cultural ideas of femininity and modesty, including the notion that girls are clean and beautiful only after removal of body parts that are considered unclean and unfeminine.
While the study findings show that efforts to curb the practice are having an impact, significant cause for concern remains, according to the researchers. The study team was led by Ngianga-Bakwin Kandala, a professor in the Department of Mathematics, Physics and Electrical Engineering at Northumbria University, in Newcastle upon Tyne, Great Britain.
"The risk factors still prevail, which potentially heightens the likelihood of reverse trend in some countries," the researchers wrote. "These risk factors include lack of, or poor, education, poverty, gendered cultural forces … and continued perception of FGM/cutting as a potential marriage market activity."
It's believed that more than 3 million African girls a year are at risk of female genital mutilation, the study authors said.
The practice also occurs in India, Indonesia, Israel, Malaysia, Thailand, some European countries, as well as North and South America, the authors noted.
"If the goal of public policy is to ensure that the practice is eliminated, further efforts and interventions as well as service planning are urgently needed," the researchers wrote.
That includes legislation, advocacy, education, multimedia communication and creating partnerships with religious and community leaders and health workers.