The school summer holidays are fast approaching. Many children and young people in these last few days of the academic year will be eagerly anticipating six weeks of carefree fun with their families and friends. But for some girls this year's summer break will mean leaving the UK to have their external genitals cut away or severely injured as part of a tradition practised in at least 28 countries world-wide.
As with other forms of child abuse, female genital mutilation often remains hidden and unreported, as children are too ashamed or afraid to speak out or just too young to understand what's happened. Children may also be under pressure from their community and fear criminalising their parents who themselves may not understand the true harm they are helping to inflict. In fact, female genital mutilation is a taboo subject that is often not even talked about in the communities that practise it.
That is why on Monday the NSPCC, supported by the Police, Government, and third sector organisations, launched a new dedicated 24/7 helpline for anyone across the UK who is worried that a child they know could be at risk, or has already become a victim of female genital mutilation.
What do we hope to achieve? The NSPCC and our partners recognise that a phone number is not a panacea. We know there are some deep rooted misconceptions that need to be tackled and cultural nervousness that must be challenged.
But, what the NSPCC FGM Helpline does represent is another massive step forward in showing female genital mutilation up for what it really is - a child protection issue, plain and simple. And it needs to be addressed not only from within the communities affected, but by professionals working with children at risk, members of the public who believe their next door neighbour might be planning to take a little girl abroad to be "cut", young people who are worried about a school friend and, of course, the police.
What made it overwhelmingly clear that we made the right decision to launch this service is the response we have received. As well as an a flurry of activity in the media and online, we also received messages of support and requests for information from organisations and individuals all over Britain who want to know what more they can do to encourage people to pick up the phone and make that call.
And what does that tell us? Well on the one hand it seems to confirm, depressingly, that the practise is as wide spread as we feared - that the estimate of 20,000 girls in the UK being at risk of female genital mutilation is conservative at best, and the NSPCC's own figure of 70 women a month being treated on the NHS for the effects of female genital mutilation is just a snapshot of what's really going on. Much more positively, the response also suggests there's a groundswell of support for dragging this issue into the mainstream and saying to perpetrators of this crime, enough is enough.
If you are worried that a child may be at risk of FGM, you can contact the NSPCC 24 hour helpline anonymously on 0800 028 3550 or email firstname.lastname@example.org