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International Day for Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation: How Do We Make It a Day of Hope?

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In 2005 I met 11-year-old Fatima, a young mother in West Darfur. She nearly died along with her baby as she had an obstructed labour caused by female genital mutilation (FGM). She only survived thanks to emergency medical care from aid workers. Meeting Fatima and hearing her shocking story was the spark that ignited my campaign to end FGM. Sadly Fatima's story is not unique; it is not even rare. There are millions of girls and women who lives are irrevocably changed by FGM.

Today (6 February) is the International Day for Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation, Campaigners and activists will use the much needed profile that an international awareness day can bring to renew efforts to eliminate this harmful traditional practice.

FGM (sometimes also known as female genital cutting or FGC) is an ancient cultural practice dating back over 2,000 years and involves the cutting or removal of the external genitals. It is most often performed on girls at or around the onset of puberty but is also carried out on babies of a few days' old up to fully grown women. Traditionally FGM is carried out by non-medically trained women, normally in unsterile conditions and without anaesthetic. It is often taboo and carried out clandestinely which makes it difficult to accurately record and put in place preventative measures.

Globally it is estimated that three million girls undergo FGM each year. This staggering number means that if you take five minutes to read this blog then that is equivalent to 30 girls being cut somewhere in the world. Some will die during the procedure and many will have life-long problems including: pain; HIV/AIDS infection; difficulty having sex; complications during pregnancy; obstructed labour; and, increased maternal and infant mortality.

There was good progress during 2012 towards raising the profile of FGM. Internationally the United Nations passed a resolution calling for the elimination of FGM in December 2012, FGM was discussed at the European Parliament and at the inaugural Trust Women Conference in London. There have also been advances in many individual countries and in the UK over the last year there has been a growing awareness of FGM with articles in mainstream media, parliamentary debates and publication of an action plan on improving prosecutions for FGM by the Director of Public Prosecutions. That FGM is now being openly discussed and prioritised is thanks to many anti-FGM campaigners who have worked hard for years to get this secretive and harmful traditional practice to be properly addressed.

We are optimistic that even more can be done in 2013 to bring about the elimination of FGM. It will be on the agenda at the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in March 2013 and I will be speaking at several events. I will be talking about important issues such as the need for better information about FGM, sharing and learning about different approaches to ending FGM and looking to set clear international goals about how governments, NGOs and communities can work together better.

It will not be easy to make progress but now is the time to build on what has already been achieved and accelerate the pace of change. FGM is complicated, difficult and sensitive. So are lots of other things in life but if they are important we find ways to get them done anyway. The fact that it is a challenge is not a good enough reason to stand by and do nothing while another generation of girls is cut.

My vision is for the world to be a place where every woman is safe, healthy and lives free from FGM. We believe doing our best to make this happen is the very least we can do for girls like Fatima. Let's help them end FGM in their lifetime.

Dr Ann-Marie Wilson is the founder of 28 Too Many www.28toomany.org and a Tearfund Inspired Individual www.inspiredindividual.org