NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The head of India's National Commission for Women (NCW) on Monday backed a campaign to outlaw "barbaric" female genital mutilation (FGM), the first official support for the banning of the age-old ritual in the country.
FGM, which can cause serious physical and psychological problems, is more commonly linked to African countries which have led international efforts to end the practice.
Little is known about FGM in India where it is carried out in great secrecy by the close-knit Dawoodi Bohra community - a Shi'ite Muslim sect numbering over one million. Campaigners estimate three-quarters of Bohra girls are cut.
On Monday, which marks International Day of Zero Tolerance to FGM, Lalitha Kumaramangalam, chair of the commission, was handed three Change.org petitions signed by more than 85,000 people calling for a law banning FGM.
"This is a barbaric act and many countries are banning it. Just because something is a social norm does not make it right. These are manifestations of different patriarchal norms," said Kumaramangalam.
"NCW will support all measures to end FGM, including steps to advocate for a law and to do advocacy among the community."
The commission advises the government on policy regarding women's rights and aims to provide a voice for issues ranging from sexual exploitation to employment.
The health and women's ministries were not immediately available to comment on whether a law was under consideration.
Masooma Ranalvi, founder of Speak Out FGM - a group of women from the Bohra community who started two of the petitions - said the commission's support was important as it was the first official backing for the criminalising of FGM in India.
"This is a starting point for us. She (Kumaramangalam) is the first official from the government who has spoken in our favour," said Ranalvi.
"With the NCW chair on our side we hope we can strengthen our armour for the legal and political battles ahead," added Ranalvi, who was cut at the age of seven.
Worldwide, up to 200 million girls and women have undergone FGM, which is carried out in a swathe of Africa and pockets of the Middle East and Asia.
The practice among Indian Dawoodi Bohras hit the headlines in November 2015 when a court in Australia found two members of the diaspora community guilty of cutting two girls. A Bohra religious leader was convicted of being an accessory.
The Dawoodi Bohras are the only Muslim community in India to practise FGM. The ritual - called "khatna" - involves removing part of the clitoris. Although it is not mentioned in the Koran, the Bohras consider it a religious obligation.
A study released on Monday by anti-FGM group Sahiyo found 80 percent of women in the Bohra community globally have been cut.
The online survey - which polled 385 Bohra women in Africa, Asia, Australia and the Middle East - said the main reasons given were religion, to reduce sexual arousal, to maintain tradition, and for hygiene.
It also found that 82 percent of women polled said they would not practise FGM on their daughters - indicating a window for change.
(Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla, Editing by Ros Russell. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org)