The global estimate is up 70 million from last year, in part due to new government data from Indonesia and population growth. Half of all FGM occurred in just three countries - Egypt, Indonesia and Ethiopia.
"Female genital mutilation differs across regions and cultures, with some forms involving life-threatening health risks. In every case FGM violates the rights of girls and women," UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Geeta Rao Gupta said in a statement accompanying a new report ahead of International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM on Saturday.
The UN is working to eliminate FGM by 2030. Since 2008, 15,000 communities in 20 countries have publicly declared they would abandon FGM and five countries have criminalized the practice.
FGM involves the partial or complete removal of a girl's external genitalia. In extreme cases the vaginal opening is also sewn up. In some communities it is considered a rite of passage and prerequisite for marriage. In others it is seen as a religious obligation, even though FGM is not mentioned in the Bible or the Koran.
Girls were cut before their fifth birthday in the majority of the 30 countries with comprehensive data. According to UN data, girls 14 and younger account for 44 million of those who have been circumcised, with the highest prevalence in the Gambia at 56 percent, Mauritania at 54 percent and in Indonesia, where half of girls under 11 years old have undergone the practice.
In Yemen, 85 percent of girls were cut in their first week of life. Somalia, Guinea and Djibouti all have prevalence rates of more than 90 percent among girls and women aged 15 to 49.
FGM is practiced in communities in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, but countries including India, Malaysia, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates lack large-scale data. The practice is also carried out in isolated pockets of immigrants in North America and Europe.
The number of girls and women that have undergone the practice could therefore be much higher than UN estimates.
"Determining the magnitude of female genital mutilation is essential to eliminating the practice. When governments collect and publish national statistics on FGM, they are better placed to understand the extent of the issue and accelerate efforts to protect the rights of millions of girls and women," said Rao Gupta.
UNICEF said that while there has been a decrease in the prevalence of FGM with education and outreach programs, the number of girls and women subject to the practice could rise significantly because of rising populations.
cw/ng (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)