More than 300 communities across four West African countries with some of the world's highest rates of female genital mutilation (FGM) are this month declaring themselves free of the practice in public ceremonies, a campaign group said on Tuesday. The communities have agreed to abandon FGM after three or more years of discussions about human rights and social change, said women's rights group Tostan, which is behind the drive. The declarations are taking place in Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali and Mauritania, according to Senegal-based Tostan. "The declarations are an opportunity for community members to openly and collectively commit to ending harmful traditional practices, including women in decision-making processes, and ensuring the rights and safety of children," the group's spokeswoman Joya Taft-Dick told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. FGM affects an estimated 140 million girls and women across a swathe of Africa and parts of the Middle East and Asia, and is seen as a gateway to marriage and a way of preserving purity. The ritual involves the removal of the external genitalia and causes numerous health problems that can be fatal. Critics of Tostan's approach say it expects attitudes towards FGM to change too quickly and that some communities keep cutting girls after declaring their opposition to the practice. While the public declarations do not always guarantee an end to FGM, they do at least spark community-wide discussions about harmful practices and social change, said Taft-Dick of Tostan. Support for FGM among women and girls is rising in Guinea, which has the second highest rate in the world after Somalia with around 97 percent of women and adolescent girls cut, the United Nations rights office said in April. Nine in 10 girls and women have been cut in Mali, which has the world's fifth highest rate of FGM and is one of the few West African nations, along with Liberia and Sierra Leone, where the practice remains legal. "These declarations are happening in some of the countries where female genital cutting prevalence is the highest in Africa, I am truly convinced… it is possible to witness the end of cutting in one generation," said Tostan founder Molly Melching. Some 3 million people across eight West African nations live in communities that have declared an end to FGM, Tostan said.