PARIS (AP) - France's government launched a campaign Tuesday against forced marriages and genital mutilation, seeking to protect women from practices that quietly thrive in immigrant communities the nation is struggling to integrate.
The government is handing out 100,000 leaflets to schools, doctors and other public services explaining the health and legal risks and providing information on support services for victims.
The campaign involves two stark, red, white and black brochures. One pictures a razor - a tool often used in genital mutilation - in a circle with a slash through it. The other shows a splayed palm, a ring of barbed wire being slid over the ring finger, also circled with a slash running through it.
France is among several European countries that have sought to stamp out such customs. French law forbids forced marriages and allows prosecution of anyone who mutilates the genitals of a girl with French citizenship or resident status, even if the operation is conducted in another country.
But the practices continue to thrive in secret. The French information campaign appears aimed at getting the word out to immigrants that such acts are not acceptable here.
"A barbaric, anachronistic and unjustifiable plague," was how the government's junior minister for women's and other social issues, Valerie Letard, described the practices.
Around 55,000 women and girls in France have been genitally mutilated, and about 70,000 women and girls in France are "under threat" of being forced into marriage, she said.
Families must be told "that the law will punish them severely if they take such paths," Letard said.
"Today we must break the silence, do away with all these received ideas about customs or religion," she said, referring to mistaken beliefs that genital mutilation is prescribed by Islam, for example.
Genital mutilation, an ancient rite in more than two dozen African countries and parts of the Middle East, usually targets the clitoris and parts of the labia, and is usually conducted on prepubescent girls.
The practice spreads across religions, and reasons for it vary from purity to tradition. Three million girls worldwide face the ordeal each year, and health risks from infection to sterility continue for life.
Immigrant families in Europe sometimes send their daughters back to their country of origin during the summer holidays to have the procedure done.
France has grappled in recent years with how best to integrate a growing number of immigrants and cultures with values that often jar against more liberal French customs.
French marriages must be validated by administrative officials, who can refuse if they suspect either of the spouses was forced into the union. Marriages of French people conducted abroad can be annulled if one of the spouses is found to have been forced into it.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.