WASHINGTON, District of Columbia - More than 125 million girls and women alive today have undergone female genital mutilation, and 30 million more girls are at risk in the next decade, UNICEF said Monday.
Although genital cutting is on the decline, the practice remains "almost universal" in some countries, said the UN Children Fund's report that spans 20 years of data across 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East.
The tradition involves removal of some or all of a female's external genitalia. It can include cutting out the clitoris and sometimes sewing together the labia.
Laws are not enough to stop the practice entirely, and more people must speak out in order to eliminate it among certain ethnic groups and communities, the researchers said.
Social acceptance is the most commonly cited reason for continuing the tradition, even though it is considered a violation of human rights, UNICEF found.
The practice "is becoming less common in slightly more than half of the 29 countries studied," said the report.
However, the tradition remains "remarkably persistent, despite nearly a century of attempts to eliminate it," it said.
"As many as 30 million girls are at risk of being cut over the next decade if current trends persist."
The ritual is practiced by various faiths, including Christians, Muslims and followers of African traditional religions. Some believe it improves a girl's marriage prospects, or that it is more aesthetically pleasing.