BAMAKO - Community leaders gathered in Mali Thursday to mark an international day of campaigning against female genital mutilation, publicly renouncing a practice that is still legal in the deeply-conservative west African nation.
Moussocoura Sidibe, the spokesman for 14 communities representing numerous ethnic groups in the Muslim-majority country, said they were taking "the solemn commitment to abandon the practice of FGM and early and forced marriage involving girls in our communities".
The participants in the announcement at a sports stadium in the capital Bamako represented about 1,000 people, according to organisers Tostan -- or "breakthrough" in the west African language of Wolof -- a US-registered development charity.
Female genital mutilation, or female circumcision, involves the ritual removal of the external genitalia of young girls with the aim of ensuring their chastity as women.
The painful and sometimes fatal operation is usually carried out on girls between infancy and age 15. It can cause infections and, later, infertility and childbirth complications.
Fanta Kourouma, a housewife from Yirimadio, a south-eastern suburb of the capital, said she had been campaigning against FGM since 1982.
"I lost a girl because of circumcision. I have a second daughter, who continues to live with the side-effects... I am very proud of what is happening today in my own neighbourhood," she said.
Thursday's announcement was the result of several years of campaigning targeting 90 women's associations in Yirimadio with Tostan seeking the backing of community elders, the charity's coordinator Mah Cisse said.
"We encountered many difficulties because it is not easy to change people's behaviour," she added.
Youssouf Bagayogo, a government official attending the ceremony, welcomed the announcement and said that "soon, the government will legislate to ban the practice", without giving a timetable.
In the 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East where FGM is concentrated, more than 125 million girls and women have been subjected to FGM, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
The agency says a further 86 million young girls worldwide are likely to experience some form of the practice by 2030, if current trends continue.
"Human development cannot be fully achieved as long as women and girls continue to suffer from this human rights violation or live in fear of it," UNFPA executive director Babatunde Osotimehin said in a statement to mark the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation.
"It is an affront to their human dignity, an assault on their health and an impediment to the well-being of their families, communities and countries.
"Human development cannot be fully achieved as long as women and girls continue to suffer from this human rights violation or live in fear of it."
While FGM remains legal in Mali, Uganda, Kenya and Guinea-Bissau have recently adopted laws criminalising the practice.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon highlighted the need to "strive to preserve the best in any culture, and leave harm behind," in a statement to mark the day.
"Although some would argue that this is a 'tradition', we must recall that slavery, so-called honour killings and other inhumane practices have been defended with the same weak argument," he said.