GENEVA (Reuters) - Female genital mutilation, the excision of the clitoris practised widely in African and many Muslim countries, is a means for men to maintain control of women and must be eradicated, U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay said on Monday.
Even if a current global campaign against the practice, dubbed FGM continued at its current level of success, it would be 60 years until the total of well over 125 million women and girls now affected was reduced by half, she said.
"FGM is a form of gender-based discrimination and violence. It is a violation of the right (of women and girls) to physical and mental integrity," Pillay told a gathering on the issue at the world body's Human Rights Council.
"As many as 30 million girls are at risk of undergoing it over the next decade, if current trends persist."
The traditional practice, often justified as a means of suppressing a woman's sexual desire and so preventing "immoral" behavior, "represents a way to exercise control over women," said the former South African High Court judge.
She was backed at the session by Chantal Campaore, wife of President Blaise Campaore of the West African republic of Burkina Fasso, who has been pushing efforts on the continent to persuade communities to abandon it.
The driving factors behind FGM, Mme Campaore said, were "tradition, customs and religion". Families - in which under-age children are the prime victims - went along with it because they feared exclusion if they did not.
The U.N. children's agency UNICEF says the 125 million plus figure of girls and women applies to the 29 countries with the highest prevalence rates. Many are in precarious health as a result of the operation.
As of last year, according to UNICEF, 98 percent of women and girls in Somalia were victims of FGM - often carried out by other female family members with no medical training. In Guinea the figure was 96 percent and in Egypt 91 percent.
It is also believed to be practised fairly widely in some immigrant communities in Europe, where many governments have moved to make it a criminal offence.
Campaigners say that the practice is often promoted by local Islamic preachers, although senior Muslim clerics in many countries, including Egypt, have denounced it as against the ethos of the religion.
An Egyptian delegate, speaking for member states of the Arab League, told the U.N. session Arab states were all committed to ending FGM through health drives and by making it a crime. "It has nothing to do with religion," he declared.
Reported by Robert Evans; editing by Ralph Boulton