A leading doctor has accused Western plastic surgeons who perform cosmetic surgery on the vagina of undermining the battle against female circumcision in other parts of the world.
Writing in the British Medical Journal, Ronan Conroy, senior lecturer at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, says the growing acceptance in Britain and elsewhere of so-called "designer vaginas" was exposing Western double standards.
"The practice of female genital mutilation is on the increase nowhere in the world except in our so-called developed societies," he writes. "Designer laser vaginoplasty" and "laser vaginal rejuvenation" are growth areas in plastic surgery, representing the latest chapter in the surgical victimisation of women in our culture."
At least three London clinics offer "vaginal tightening" after childbirth, "cosmetic vaginal surgery" and "labioplasty" - reduction of the size of the labia, advertised on the internet. Some British women travel to the US for treatment, which is carried out by gynaecologists specialising in reconstructive surgery, using a scalpel or laser.
One woman, Rose, who was worried about changes to her vagina after the birth of her baby, flew to Los Angeles for treatment.
"I didn't feel confident with my body," she said. "I understand that women come in different shapes and sizes but that's not how my body was made and I wasn't comfortable with it."
She said the first 24 hours after the surgery were a "living nightmare as she endured a painful and sleepless night thousands if miles from home. She returned to Britain a week later and is happy with the result.
The World Health Organisation defines female genital mutilation as: "All procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs whether for cultural, religious or other non-therapeutic reasons."
Mr Conroy writes: "It is Western medicine which, by a process of disease mongering, is driving the advance of female genital mutilation by promoting the fear in women that what is natural biological variation is a defect."
There was an assumption by Western critics that in the developing world the practice was forced on young girls. In fact, it was often welcomed as the mark of entry into adulthood and they were proud of it, he said. "The high moral tone with which those in richer countries criticise female genital mutilation would be more credible if we in the North had not practised and did not continue to practise it," he added.
Researchers from Stockholm say, in a separate study in the BMJ, that girls and women subjected to female genital mutilation in the developing world were frequently inaccurate in reporting what had been done, and often minimised it.
Although many families abandon the practice when they emigrate, in the UK studies suggest there are 3,000-4,000 new cases each year.Reuse content