UNITED NATIONS -- Ten UN agencies have launched a campaign to significantly reduce female circumcision by 2015 and abandon the practice within a generation.

In a statement, the agencies said female circumcision violates the rights of women and girls to health, protection and even life, since the procedure sometimes results in death.

The agencies pledged to support all efforts by governments, communities, women and girls to reduce and end the practice.

Female circumcision, also called female genital mutilation, usually involves the removal of the clitoris and other parts of female genitalia. Those who practise it say it tames a girl's sexual desire and maintains her honour.

"Today, we must stand and firmly oppose this practice because it clashes with our core universal values and constitutes a challenge to human dignity and health," deputy secretary general Asha-Rose Migiro told the Commission on the Status of Women where the campaign was launched.

"The consequences of genital mutilation are unacceptable anywhere, anytime and by any moral and ethical standard," she said.

"Often, female genital mutilation is carried out on minors, violating the rights of a child to free and full consent on matters concerning her body and body functions."

A statement from the UN agencies said between 100 million and 140 million women and girls are estimated to have had female circumcision and three million girls are estimated to be at risk of the procedure every year.

It is deeply rooted in the Nile Valley region and parts of sub-Saharan Africa and is also done in Yemen and Oman. Through migration, the practice has spread to western countries like Britain.

The 10 agencies said in their statement: "The ambitious goal of eliminating female genital mutilation within a generation can be achieved by building on the progress of existing programs and working hand in hand with communities."

"We have seen great success in people turning away from this harmful practice," the agencies said.

"To take these efforts to scale, we also need to see strong leadership on female genital mutilation at all levels."

Migiro said there are "no quick or easy solutions" and achieving results will require changing "collective behaviour" that has supported female circumcision for generations.

Despite some gains, she said, the rate of decline "leaves much to be desired."

"If we can come together for a sustained push, female genital mutilation can vanish within a generation," Migiro said.

"This goal demands both increased resources and strengthened co-ordination and co-operation among all of us."

The 10 agencies are The Joint UN Program on HIV/AIDS; the UN Development Program; the UN Economic Commission for Africa; the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization; the UN Population Fund; the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights; the UN refugee agency, UNHCR; the UN children's agency, UNICEF; the UN Development Fund for Women and the World Health Organization.