Cairo, June 29 (Reuters) - The campaign against female circumcision, which activists say is starting to change attitudes in Egypt and across Africa, came too late for one Egyptian adolescent.
Following in the footsteps of an age-old family tradition, her mother Nashua subjected her daughter to the practice that many refer to as female genital mutilation (FGM).
Now the middle-aged mother, who was herself circumcised at the age of 10, believes her decision was wrong.
"Circumcision for girls is bad. It must stop," Nashua said during a June conference in Cairo that was part of campaign extending across the continent to end a practice that affects millions of women.
Despite a ban in many countries, including Egypt, up to 130 million women have undergone FGM and 6,000 girls are subjected to it every day, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
In some African countries - such as Egypt, Somalia or Ethiopia - more than 90 percent of women are estimated to have been circumcised.
But campaigners say numbers are starting to come down as they struggle to stamp out FGM, which experts say leaves women physically and emotionally scarred.
In Egypt, with a population of almost 70 million, research showed circumcision among young women aged 10-19 was now down to around 84 percent, compared to 96 percent for the total female population.
"We broke the silence in Egypt and other countries about FGM. Let's finish it now," Emma Bonino, an Italian member of the European parliament, told the Cairo conference, organised by government agencies and women's rights groups.
FGM involves cutting the clitoris and other genitalia, sometimes by a doctor but often in more rural societies by a relative or local "healer".
For communities which practice it, the tradition is a rite of passage from girlhood to womanhood. They say it also reduces sex drive, thereby limiting promiscuity.
"We see a change in the attitude of people even if it still takes time to stop FGM," said Nadra Zaki, child protection officer at the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).
"People talk at least about the subject. We have raised the awareness of the issue," she told Reuters.
UNICEF started anti-FGM programmes in Egypt in 1998 and has trained hundreds of aid workers who try to persuade parents to stop circumcising and break the social pressure that force many to continue the practice.
"They organise discussion forums or meetings between young mothers in their region," said Zaki.
Aid workers say campaigns show success in other countries, helped by growing literacy in Africa, where access to the Internet and other information sources is more widely available. They say parents listen increasingly to warnings against FGM.
"In some African countries such as Tanzania, Senegal and Mali the numbers (of FGM) are dropping", said Cristiana Scoppa, an activist with the Italian women's organisation AIDOS.
"We are even reaching immigrants in European countries, such as Italy, when they meet people from different social classes or tribes and learn about the bad consequences of FGM," she said.
In Egypt, the campaign has won support from the government and religious leaders.
Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, grand sheikh of Cairo's prestigious al-Azhar mosque, and Egypt's Coptic Christian leader Pope Shenouda said neither Islam's Koran nor the Christian Bible demand or even mention female circumcision.
Egypt's campaign to end FGM includes television programmes aimed at persuading parents to abandon it. Some 60 villages where FGM is widespread were identified as priority targets to fight the practice.
Experts say there is a long way to go, including educating some medical professionals.
"What is alarming is the fact that up to 50 percent (of circumcised) women say a doctor or registered nurse did it," said Barbara Ibrahim, a Cairo-based sociologist.
"We certainly see progress with rising literacy and education. But we want to speed up the process. We simply want to spare another generation of FGM."