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PARIS (Reuters) - France launched a new campaign to warn potential victims of forced marriages and female genital mutilation on Tuesday, with stark posters and booklets showing a wedding ring made of barbed wire.
France is home to an estimated 55,000 victims of female genital mutilation, mostly of African origin, and some 70,000 young women who are at risk of being forced into marriage, government officials said at a news conference.
"In both cases, neither tradition nor custom can justify calling into question fundamental rights," Solidarity Minister Valerie Letard said.
In a struggle to protect human rights while respecting the values of immigrant communities, European governments have ramped up efforts to protect young women of Asian, Middle Eastern or African descent who are lured abroad and married off.
Victims of genital mutilation are often children of primary school age, who are subjected to the ordeal during family holidays, activists told the news conference.
France's government plans to distribute more than 100,000 booklets providing legal and medical advice and contacts for victims as well as doctors, teachers and social workers.
A booklet with a crossed-out red razor blade warned of the potentially lethal impact of genital mutilation, during which the clitoris and other parts of the vagina are removed.
"The booklets are useful for people who can read and write, but the majority of parents I talk to are illiterate," Khady Koita, head of the European network against female genital mutilation, told Reuters.
Koita uses videos and drawings to show parents the dangers of the operation, which is meant to ensure a woman's chastity and improve her chances of finding a husband.
"Over the past few years, their reaction has become more positive. Many parents now say, 'I don't do it anymore, but my problem is that when I go back to Africa there is a lot of social pressure'," Koita said.
Other activists urged the government to provide secure shelters for women who flee forced marriages. They said it should be mandatory for women's rights to be taught in schools, adding the issue is often avoided for fear of offending France's ethnic minorities.
In France, forced marriages are illegal and can be annulled even if they were registered abroad. Registrars are encouraged to look for signs a marriage is not consensual and stop the ceremony if they suspect the bride was forced into it.
Reporting by Sophie Hardach; Editing by Farah Master