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Female genital mutilation, a practice that inflicts death and injury on thousands of girls and women every year, has become dramatically less common in many African countries in recent years, a new study has found.

Published on Wednesday by BMJ Global Health, a publication of the British Medical Journal, the study found evidence of a “huge and significant decline” in the dangerous practice of female cutting among children in the African regions where it had been most common.

In East Africa, for example, only 8 per cent of girls were subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM) in 2016, a stunning decline from 1995 when more than 71 per cent of girls suffered the practice, according to the study.

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The apparent decline will offer new hope to campaigners who have been working to eliminate traditional FGM practices around the world. An estimated 200 million girls and women worldwide have been subjected to FGM, even though the practice of cutting or removing eternal female genitalia is considered a form of child abuse with no health benefits.

Experts have found FGM practised in 29 African countries and a number of other countries in the Middle East and Asia, in a tradition that dates back for centuries. It has been criminalized in many countries, but it is still routinely practised, often considered as a rite of passage or a way to reduce promiscuity.

The practice has “devastating health consequences” for girls and women, especially in childbirth and in sexual and mental health, the study said.

According to the World Health Organization, FGM procedures can cause severe bleeding and pain, infections, fever, urinary and sexual problems, psychological problems, complications in childbirth and increased risk of death for newborns. Experts estimate one in every 500 FGM procedures causes death.

The study published on Wednesday by three researchers from Britain and one from South Africa found the prevalence of FGM among North African girls has dropped from 58 per cent in 1990 to 14 per cent in 2015. Among girls in West Africa, the rate of FGM was about 74 per cent in 1996 but it has dropped to 25 per cent today. The only increases in FGM were found in two Middle Eastern countries: Iraq and Yemen.

Although the study did not include a detailed analysis of the reasons for the drastic decline, it suggested the legal bans in most countries and the national and international campaigns against FGM were likely the main reasons. More than 20 African countries have banned the practice.

The study found FGM is still widely practised in countries such as Mali, Mauritania, Gambia, Guinea, Djibouti, Sudan and Somalia.

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It was based on a massive compilation of data from dozens of surveys by the United Nations and other official agencies, covering more than 200,000 girls in 31 countries.

The study focused on girls up to the age of 14. While older girls and young women can be subjected to FGM, the practice is most frequently inflicted on younger girls.

The dramatic reduction in FGM across Africa shows “comprehensive intervention efforts” should be continued, the study concluded.

Culturally sensitive strategies “should be a major public health priority” in the countries where the practice is still common, the authors wrote. They suggested campaigners should focus on legislation, advocacy, education, media efforts and forging partnerships with religious and community leaders.

Despite the dramatic decline in FGM, there is still a danger that the trend could be reversed in some countries, the study warned.

It cited several “risk factors” that can heighten the prevalence of female genital mutilation, including low education levels, poverty and a continued perception that FGM is “a potential marriage market activity.”

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