By Emma Batha
ROME, Feb 1 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Hundreds of young girls in Kenya's ethnic Kuria community will be spared female genital mutilation (FGM) in 2017 because of a superstition that the number seven is unlucky, campaigners say.
They called on the government to take advantage of the suspension to step up education around the ritual, which can cause serious health problems.
The Kuria, who number around 260,000 in southwest Kenya, normally cut girls in the school holidays in December. The break means they are unlikely to resume the ritual until the end of 2018.
"They believe seven is a cursed number so they won't be cutting this year," said Natalie Robi, a Kuria campaigner.
"If the government capitalised on this period it could bring a huge change next year," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Migori County.
Activists said neighbouring Tanzania was home to a larger Kuria population which would also suspend the ritual.
Campaigners, U.N. officials and government representatives from around the world are meeting in Rome this week for a conference on accelerating efforts to end FGM.
Globally, an estimated 200 million women and girls have undergone FGM, which usually involves the partial or total removal of the external genitalia.
The ritual is commonly associated with 27 African countries, Yemen, Iraqi Kurdistan and Indonesia.
Kenya, which has banned FGM, is widely seen as a leader in efforts to eradicate the internationally condemned practice.
One in five women have been cut in Kenya, but the rate is much higher in some communities which believe the ritual is crucial for social acceptance and increasing their daughters' marriage prospects.
Linah Kilimo, who set up Kenya's Anti-FGM Board said the government had launched a major prevention initiative last year, knowing the Kuria were planning to cut more girls than usual in December because of this year's suspension.
Law enforcement officers were put on high alert and meetings held with village elders to explain the dangers of FGM.
Kilimo, who stepped down as head of the board in January, said many girls had been saved.
Eight people have been charged with FGM-related offences in Kenya.
"This is the year now to do a lot of sensitisation work to cement our achievements of 2016," Kilimo said on the sidelines of the BanFGM conference which ends on Wednesday.
Activist Robi described FGM - often carried out with unsterilized blades or knives - as "a very barbaric act".
But she said it remained almost universal among the Kuria, where women are treated as children until they are cut.
FGM can happen between the ages of eight and 20. Once a girl is cut she is expected to marry.
Robi said she had recently helped a nine-year-old who was cut in December in preparation for marriage.
Uncut Kuria women have a lower status and are banned from some activities. The stigmatisation means girl are often keen to undergo FGM, campaigners say.
Robi said she was shunned by her peers after her mother refused to have her cut.
"Growing up was very hard. I didn't have friends because I had not been circumcised. If I walked around the community I would be abused," she said.
Robi, founder of grassroots group Msichana Empowerment Kuria, said schooling was key to ending FGM.
"It begins with having an education. You learn about other people's cultures and that other people do things differently."
(Editing by Astrid Zweynert. 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.)