- A bill was approved that would criminalise female genital mutilation.
- Puntland's justice minister said girls should be "left the way they are born".
- Hospitals, midwives and traditional circumcisers will face stiff penalties.
Somalia's semi-autonomous Puntland region has taken a first step towards banning female genital mutilation (FGM) in a country where almost all women and girls are forced to undergo the internationally condemned practice.
Puntland President Said Abdullahi Deni and his cabinet this week approved a bill to be submitted to parliament that would criminalise the ancient ritual, a measure anti-FGM campaigners said would boost their efforts to end the practice.
"It will be forbidden to circumcise girls. Girls in Puntland must be left the way they are born. Anyone who performs circumcision in the region will face the full force of the law," Puntland Justice Minister Awil Sheikh Hamud told reporters.
Justice Ministry officials said the bill includes stiff penalties for those who perform FGM, including hospitals, midwives and traditional circumcisers. No date has yet been set for it to be presented before parliament for a vote.
FGM, which involves the partial or total removal of the female genitalia, is almost universal in Somalia - with 98% of women and girls having been cut, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
There is currently no national law outlawing FGM in the Horn of Africa country.
Both Puntland and the breakaway state of Somaliland have issues fatwas - religious edicts - against the practice in the past, but there is no parliamentary legislation is in place.
FGM affects 200 million girls and women globally and can lead to a host of serious medical problems, according to the World Health Organization.
It can cause long-lasting mental and physical health problems including chronic infections, menstrual problems, infertility, pregnancy and childbirth complications.
In some cases, girls can bleed to death or die from infections.
In many communities, girls are married soon after cutting, stifling their progress in education, health and employment.
School closures caused by the pandemic could lead to an extra two million girls being cut in the next decade, the UNFPA has estimated, hampering global efforts to stamp out the practice by 2030.
In Somalia, where the vaginal opening is also often sewn up - a practice called infibulation - charities have reported a surge in cases as circumcisers offer door-to-door services for girls stuck at home due to Covid-19 restrictions.
Campaigners said legislation banning FGM would boost their fight to end the practice.
Hailing it as a "great milestone", the UNFPA's head in Somalia, Anders Thomsen, said the bill would "have a ripple effect in the campaign to end FGM in Puntland" if approved.
"This means girls will be safe from the brutal cut," he added in a statement.
Somali anti-FGM campaigner Maymun Mahad said she still remembered undergoing the "very painful" practice.
"As a young woman, I welcome the move by the cabinet," she said.