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More than 140 million females are considered “missing” today because of a preference for sons over daughters and extreme neglect of young girls leading to their death, the UN Population Fund said in its annual report released Tuesday.

The agency, known as UNFPA, also said one in five marriages that take place today is to an underage girl, and an estimated 4.1 million girls are at risk this year of being subjected to female circumcision, also known as female genital mutilation, or FGM, which has been condemned by the United Nations.

Dr. Natalia Kanem, UNFPA’s executive director, said: “Harmful practices against girls cause profound and lasting trauma, robbing them of their right to reach their full potential.”

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According to the State of World Population 2020 report, at least 19 harmful practices ranging from breast ironing to virginity testing affect millions of girls and are considered human rights violations. The report focuses on the three most prevalent – gender bias, child marriage and female genital mutilation.

According to the report, “the preference for sons over daughters may be so pronounced that couples will go to great lengths to avoid giving birth to a girl or will fail to care for the health and well-being of a daughter they already have in favour of their son.”

UNFPA called the preference for sons “a symptom of entrenched gender inequality” that has distorted population ratios in countries, making it unable for large numbers of men to find partners and have children. The agency said it can also exacerbate gender-based violence including rape, coerced sex, sexual exploitation, trafficking and child marriage.

As for child marriage, the report said the practice “is commonly imposed on girls by family members, community members or society at large, regardless of whether the victim provides, or is able provide, full, free and informed consent.”“

Child marriages are almost universally banned, UNFPA said, “yet they happen 33,000 times a day, every day, all around the world – cutting across countries, cultures, religions and ethnicities.”

The report said 650 million girls and women alive today were married as children, and it said 200 million women and girls alive today are affected by FGM.

UNFPA chief Kanem said laws alone are not enough to end these practices.

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“We must tackle the problem by tackling the root causes, especially gender-biased norms,” she said in a statement. “We must do a better job of supporting communities’ own efforts to understand the toll these practices are taking on girls and the benefits that accrue to the whole of society by stopping them.”

The report calls for restructuring economies and legal systems to guarantee women equal opportunities. As an example, it says changing rules for property inheritance can eliminate a powerful incentive for families to favour sons over daughters and help eliminate child marriage.

The report said investments totalling $3.4-billion a year through 2030 would end child marriage and female genital mutilation and end the suffering of an estimated 84 million girls.

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