More than 200 million girls and women suffer the consequences of genital mutilation, according to estimates by the United Nations. Some of them have been taken abroad for the so-called practice of "vacation cutting."
Mariya Taher was seven when her parents took her on a family trip back to India, her parents' home country. US-born Taher and her sister had been to India many times to visit relatives, but this trip was different. Her mother took her to an old-looking building in Mumbai.
"I remember being put on the floor, I remember being cut," she said, recalling the procedure known as female genital mutilation (FGM) or female genital cutting.
"I remember crying because it hurt," she told DW. "My mom and the other ladies were comforting me and gave me a soda to drink. But I don't remember much afterwards."
Taher had a piece of her clitoral hood removed. That's the tradition of the Dawoodi Bohra community, a Shia Muslim sect comprising some two million people. While Taher was taken abroad to be cut - called "vacation cutting" - her sister was later subjected to the practice in the US.
"I think people underestimate the idea of tradition and how powerful a force it is," Taher said, trying to explain why her parents opted for the procedure at the time.
"But it's also something that's considered a social norm. If you don't get it done, you are not doing the best you can for your child. And it has been convoluted and construed in a way that it is a form of taking care of your child."
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Taher, now 34, co-founded the NGO Sahiyo with four other women to stop the practice of FGM. She says in order to achieve the UN's Global Goal to end FGM by 2030, all affected communities - including those in Asia - have to be supported. That's what the advocacy collective of South Asian survivors of FGM is pushing for. It's not just an "African problem," they point out in their most recent petition.
Official figures of how women have been victimized don't exist, as it mostly happens in secrecy. According to estimates from the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), more than 200 million girls and women in 30 countries suffer the consequences of FGM. There are no valid figures available on how often FGM is practiced in industrialized countries, a UNICEF spokesperson told DW in writing.
The number of girls affected could be much higher, Taher said. "I'm actually not included in that statistic. And many countries in Asia are not included in those statistics. It also doesn't include second- or third-generation children."
"FGM is a global concern," Christina Catherine Pallitto, the World Health Organization's expert on FGM, told DW in writing. The practice was most common in the western, eastern, and northeastern regions of Africa, in some countries the Middle East and Asia, as well as among migrants from these areas, she added.
"Globally, it is estimated that 3 million girls are at risk of being cut each year," she said.
According to the WHO, there are four different types of FGM, depending on the extent of the cut. "A lot of times you will hear people say that 'Oh, those more severe forms that happen in Africa, those are the ones that are mutilation and should not continue. But what we're doing is safe, particularly if it's been done in a health setting,'" Taher said, citing people who were defending the practice.
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"That's a trend we're seeing as well. In some countries, like in Indonesia or Singapore, it is medicalized and so health professionals are doing it much more."
"It breaks health code ethics," she added. "All forms of FGM are terrible."
Bleeding, infections and other complications
There is no health benefit to FGM; the procedure can cause severe bleeding, problems when urinating and lead to cysts, infections and complications in childbirth. According to the UN, FGM is internationally recognized as a human rights violation.
Taher says it's crucial to persuade all communities to stop the practice.
"I've had a lot of conversations with my parents now. It boils down to tradition. It was what they were expected to do," she said. "People are changing their ideas and thoughts. You're seeing that social change happening - it doesn't happen overnight, but you are starting to see the questions, the conversations."
Pallitto of the WHO points to "a combination of multi-sectoral actions, including legislation banning the practice, application of existing laws, awareness raising to inform communities about the risks of FGM, social norm change to replace rites of passage."
The United States, for instance, banned FGM in 1996, and a loophole for taking children abroad to perform the practice was closed in 2013.
"In addition health care providers should be trained to resist requests to perform FGM on their patients," Pallitto added.
For Taher, the key is education - and the communities themselves. "We are trying to build a critical mass of people to show that FGM is something that we can choose not to continue, because I think a lot of times people don't realize that that option even exists - that you can choose not to continue it."