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Female genital mutilation is a bloody custom carried out on thousands of young girls every day worldwide but rarely in Canada where it is a banned, underground practice.

St. Catharines, Ont., became a focus of attention after allegations that an 11-year-old girl underwent surgery to remove at least part of her external genitals.

The girl's parents were each charged with aggravated assault this week in connection with allegations that a genital-cutting operation was done by a "practitioner" in their St. Catharines home.

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The father faces an additional assault charge over allegations that the girl, now 13, was struck several times on the back over the past two years with a belt, said Sergeant James Mackay of the Niagara Regional Police.

"We're not releasing the location of the child or whose care she is in," he said in a telephone interview yesterday. "That's done to protect the identity of the child."

A bail hearing for the parents scheduled for yesterday was put over to Monday, after the matter couldn't be fitted into the court schedule.

In Canada, female genital mutilation is prohibited under the Criminal Code except when it is deemed medically necessary and performed by a doctor or if a woman 18 years of age consents to the procedure.

Around the world, about 6,000 girls between the ages of 4 and 12 are circumcised every day, according to the French non-governmental organization Plan International.

In Somalia, Sierra Leone and Mali, which have no legislation regulating circumcision, more than 90 per cent of women and girls undergo the ritual procedure, the group has said in a report.

And there are degrees of genital cutting: In a circumcision, the hood of the clitoris is cut; in an excision, the clitoris and all or part of the labia minora are cut.

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Most extreme is infibulation. That's when the clitoris, labia minora and at least two thirds if not the whole of the labia majora are cut. The two sides of the vulva are then sutured, leaving only a small hole for the purpose of passing urine or menstrual blood.

Sometimes, the girl's husband will attempt to open the hole -- often smaller than the end of a pencil -- on their wedding night.

"Husbands use everything starting with the penis, and ending with glass or a knife or whatever to have sexual intercourse," said Herbert Khosid at Mount Sinai Hospital's women's unit in Toronto.

For some of the women, Dr. Khosid will surgically open the area so they can have sexual intercourse or deliver a child.

"Usually there is nothing to reconstruct, I just open it," said Dr. Khosid, who sees between two and three such cases each year. "I tell them, 'I will open it for you, but the law in Canada says I cannot close it back.' "

Indeed, doctors who perform the female circumcision, excision or infibulation could be subject to professional-misconduct charges.

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Donna Stewart, professor and chairwoman of Women's Health at the University of Toronto and University Health Network, says ""the whole idea is to make the woman virginal and it takes away sexual pleasure."

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