By Hanan Abdel-Khalek
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The United States unveiled plans on Thursday to ramp up efforts to end female genital mutilation (FGM) after figures showed more than half of million women and girls were living at risk.
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid said the U.S. Department of State would host a summit on Dec. 2 in Washington involving various government departments and women's rights groups to come up with an action plan to rid the country of FGM.
A study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released earlier this year showed 513,000 women and girls in the United States live at risk of FGM, a threefold increase in recent years due to the rise in immigrants from countries where it is practiced.
The number of U.S. women and girls who have undergone the actual procedure - which has been illegal for 20 years in the United States - is unknown due to a lack of reliable data.
But Reid said the United States was lagging behind in protecting women and girls "from this brutal human rights violation".
"Many Americans haven't even heard of FGM or they think it's some far-away problem," Reid said in statement.
"Although it's illegal, it does happens here, and we shouldn't stand for it. There are a number of actions our government can take right now to address FGM."
The announcement of the "U.S. Girl Summit" came with the release of a Government Accountability Office report which Reid said highlighted the failure of U.S. authorities to deal with the issue to date, with a lack of guidelines and funding.
FGM, which involves the partial or total removal of a girl's external genitalia, is practiced across a swathe of African countries and in pockets of Asia and the Middle East.
FGM can cause 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.
An estimated 200 million women and girls around the world have been subject to FGM, according to the United Nations' children agency UNICEF.
Jaha Dukureh, an FGM survivor and founder of the U.S.-based anti-FGM organization Safe Hands for Girls, said even one victim of FGM in the United States was too many.
"We need to do more and we need to support survivors already here," Dukureh said in the statement.
Safe Hands for Girls will co-host the December summit with human rights organization Equality Now.
(Editing by Belinda Goldsmith @BeeGoldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)