BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The taboo surrounding female genital mutilation (FGM) among Colombia's Embera indigenous tribe, the only tribe in Latin America known to carry out the practice, was so great that until recently community leaders didn't even know the procedure existed.
In 2007, the death of a newborn Embera girl from an infection after undergoing FGM, which involves the partial or total removal of the external genitalia, helped lift the taboo and prompted Embera communities to vow to stop the practice.
"Before 2007, we didn't even know FGM was happening in our communities," said Alberto Wuazorna, an Embera leader and chief advisor at the National Indigenous Organisation of Colombia (ONIC).
"We're making progress and working toward totally eradicating FGM. It's an issue that's being discussed now at local and national indigenous assemblies and is something we hope can end in the next 10 to 15 years," Wuazorna told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview.
Embera leaders say FGM has stopped among 25,000 Emberas living in two indigenous reserves in Colombia's western Risaralda province.
Colombian authorities and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) started an awareness raising campaign in that province about the physical and psychological damage FGM can cause following the 2007 death of the newborn girl.
FGM can cause severe bleeding, pain, shock, recurrent urinary tract infections, infertility and complications in childbirth.
But the campaign to eradicate FGM has yet to reach other members of the 250,000-strong Embera tribe, particularly among those living in remote rainforest reserves in southern Colombia and along the country's Pacific coast.
"It's not easy. FGM has been going on in private among women for two to three centuries. In some communities the issue is still not being talked about," Wuazorna said.
There are no figures on how many newborn babies in the tribe undergo FGM every year and it is unclear why the practice exists.
"It's still a secretive practice that's decided between the mother of the newborn child and the midwife," Lucy Wartenberg, UNFPA's Colombia assistant representative told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview.
She said one reason for carrying out FGM is that some Emberas believe it prevents promiscuity after marriage.
“We would like to be optimistic and say that this abominable practice can be eradicated quicker than in 15 years," she added.
Worldwide FGM is most common in Africa and the Middle East where more than 130 million girls and women have experienced some form of the procedure, according to 2014 data from UNICEF.
(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney, Editing by Lisa Anderson)