By Emma Batha
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Somalia's next government should ensure a law is passed banning all forms of female genital mutilation (FGM), a U.N. official said on Tuesday, describing the deeply entrenched practice as a "horrendous rights violation".
Somalia has the world's highest rate of FGM with 98 percent of women between 15 and 49 having been subjected to the potentially deadly ritual.
- PHOTOS: NYC 2019 Pride Parade31 Pictures
A bill on FGM is sitting in parliament but is unlikely to be debated until next year because of elections expected this month in the Horn of Africa country.
Jeremy Hopkins, deputy representative for UNICEF in Somalia, said the U.N. children's agency was optimistic a law would eventually go through, but the details in it would be crucial.
"Our approach for the legislation is to go slow. We don't want to risk this being politicized," he said in an interview in London.
"We promote total abandonment of FGM, whereas there is a large part of public opinion in Somalia which will promote a milder form of FGM," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Most women in Somalia have undergone the severest form of FGM, known as infibulation, in which the external genitalia are sliced off and the vaginal opening sewn up.
The cutting is usually done by traditional circumcisers, sometimes using rusty and unsterilized instruments.
Hopkins said there was evidence that families were moving toward "a milder form of FGM", but that this was not something UNICEF condoned.
"I would say there has been quite a big shift in recent years away from infibulation to this lesser form," he added.
It is not clear whether the alternative form involves a small nick or the partial removal of the clitoris.
Hopkins said UNICEF was concerned that parents appeared to be increasingly taking their daughters to clinics to undergo FGM.
Campaigners say the "medicalisation of FGM" serves to legitimize the practice.
"It's still a horrendous rights violation and I would question the integrity of any health staff who undertake such (a procedure)," Hopkins said.
FGM often causes a host of health problems. In some cases girls may bleed to death or die from infections. Others may suffer fatal childbirth complications later in life.
However, the ancient ritual is widely considered a prerequisite for marriage in Somalia where uncut girls risk ostracisation.
Many also believe FGM is a religious obligation even though it is not mentioned in the Koran.
The northern semi-autonomous region of Puntland has led the way in tackling FGM with religious leaders issuing a fatwa against the practice at the end of 2013.
Hopkins said this was a significant step and would have been inconceivable a decade ago.
He hoped discussions on a fatwa could be restarted with religious leaders in the neighboring semi-autonomous region of Somaliland who have previously opposed issuing a decree.
Hopkins said he had met families in Somalia whose daughters had died from FGM and women whose lives had been destroyed by debilitating childbirth injuries related to FGM.
But he said even if parents understood the risks they often felt compelled to have their daughters cut.
"I remember 12 years ago a father saying, 'We get that it's bad for our daughters, but I want my daughter to have a husband. What are you going to do about that?'," Hopkins said.
UNICEF has therefore adopted an approach to encourage communities to give up FGM collectively through public declarations.
Hopkins said 120 villages had so far abandoned FGM meaning uncut girls would be able to find a husband within their communities.
(Editing by Katie Nguyen.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.)