Every year, three million girls and women undergo female genital mutilation (FGM). It is torture, and yet it is tolerated and excused in many places as just another example of cultural diversity.

While the details are gruesome, it is necessary to have some specifics. In Somalia, 90 to 98 percent of women have their genitals cut. Eighty percent of those cases are Type III, meaning that part or all of the external genitalia is excised, and the vaginal opening is stitched up to the size of a matchstick. In Somalia, this procedure is usually performed on girls aged six to seven. In Ethiopia, 80 percent of girls undergo FGM, ranging from the removal of various parts of the female genitalia to genital piercing.

FGM has been reported in 28 African countries, several countries in Asia and the Middle East, and some ethnic groups in Central and South America. And according to the World Health Organization, there are “increasing numbers” of girls now living in North America and Western Europe who have already undergone FGM or are at risk of suffering through the practice. Today, between 100 and 140 million girls and women worldwide are thought to have had their genitals cut. The risks and consequences do not fade when procedure itself ends; the medical dangers are numerous. Blood is shared, risking HIV infection, cutting instruments are sometimes unsanitary, and bodily functions such as urinating and childbirth often become a source of excruciating pain.

Justifications for FGM range from religious obligation to familial honor to men’s sexual pleasure to the aesthetic appearance of FGM scars. FGM “ensures” virginity, and virginity “ensures” the absence of “loose morals,” and the absence of loose morals guarantees a high bride-price, in addition to the family’s honor. Indeed, the practice is often buried deep in a community’s social structure.

A CARE International study carried out in Somalia in October 1999 found that forty percent of women interviewed felt there was nothing bad about the practice, and only eleven percent did not want their daughters to undergo FGM. The practice also carries significant ethnic and political implications. British colonial legislation against FGM in Kenya was a serious source of resentment, and attempts to eradicate the practice by some African governments who do not have the support of FGM-practicing ethnic groups have met stiff resistance.

We have now witnessed about three decades of intensified opposition to the practice by non-governmental organizations and some governments. FGM has declined in frequency or been made safer in some areas, and there is a growing number of educational initiatives to stop it altogether. Yet governmental legislation has translated poorly into de facto enforcement. At times, the legal prohibition of FGM has forced the practice underground and into more unsanitary conditions. While the World Health Organization projects a greater decrease in the prevalence of FGM within a generation, the pace of decline has been much too slow.

What can we do? First, we can be aware of the massive suffering and the unconditional need for it to stop. Second, we can lend support to the non-governmental organizations who are visiting villages, educating parents, providing medical care, and seeking to protect girls and women on the ground. Third, we should push international organizations to put a much greater spotlight on the matter. Fourth, we should insist that our own government highlight the issue by placing conditions on funding to countries in which the practice is widespread.

The prevention of FGM is one of the most basic women’s rights issues in the world, and it is a defining example of women’s inability to exercise personal autonomy. We have been confronted time and again with the false dichotomy between “forcing our values upon others” and “being pragmatic.” Taking local customs and considerations into account does not mean relinquishing the moral authority to call the deliberate mutilation of women’s bodies wrong — regardless of culture, religion, or nationality. It means pursuing the eradication of FGM now.

Asha Rose Migiro, the deputy secretary-general of the United Nations, announced at the current session of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women that U.N. agencies had made a “collective commitment to stop the archaic practice of female genital mutilation.” It is not only archaic; it is torture. Call it what it is, and we will be closer to eliminating this immediate and fundamental destroyer of women’s equality.

Rachel Bayefsky is a junior in Morse College. Her column runs on alternate Tuesdays.