More than one in three people (35%) in the UK do not understand the term female genital mutilation (FGM), new research suggests. The illegal practice, which is highly dangerous and can result in death, has attracted unprecedented media attention in recent years, with Hollywood star and UN Special Envoy Angelina Jolie leading the campaign against it.
Plan UK, the charity which commissioned the research, said the findings showed "ignorance of FGM remains worryingly high".
A quarter of those surveyed said they knew the term but did not fully understand what it means, while another one in 10 said they had never heard of FGM at all. The remaining 65% of the 2,208 adults questioned said they did know what FGM meant.
Plan UK chief executive Tanya Barron said: "It's clear that while a third of the public remain unaware or even oblivious to this practice, girls remain at risk, both here in the UK and overseas. Tireless campaigning by a small group of people has put FGM firmly on the agenda in the UK. This research shows that we must continue to build on that progress. And we must remember that this is a global problem that requires a global effort; ending FGM here in the UK means ending it in the countries across the world in which it is prevalent."
Plan UK runs the Because I Am A Girl campaign, which works with countries across the world to bring an end to FGM.
The YouGov survey was designed to assess the British public's knowledge of the practice, which involves the full or partial removal of the external female genitalia for non-medical reasons. When those surveyed read what FGM amounted to, almost nine in 10 (87%) agreed it was a human rights violation.
"Recognising that FGM is a fundamental abuse of girls' rights is the first step to ending the practice," said Barron. "And we know from our programmes in countries such as Mali and Egypt that slowly but surely this recognition, along with education about the significant health risks, can bring down prevalence of FGM."
Young people in the UK showed the lowest levels of understanding of FGM. Almost one in five (19%) of those aged 18 to 24 said they had never heard of it, while nearly a quarter (24%) said they had heard the term but did not understand it. Barron said young people are central to tackling FGM. She said: "Young people are absolutely critical to the success of the global campaign to end FGM. It is their generation that can break the cycle."
Madina Bocoum Daff, Plan's FGM programme manager in Mali, said: "The world is now a 'big village', everything is linked. An international approach is indispensable to eradicate this scourge. More and more in Mali, FGM is considered an act of violence for girls and women. And people are starting to see this violence as a violation of children's rights."
More than 125 million girls and women alive today have been subjected to FGM, according to the World Health Organisation. The practice can lead to infection, infertility and in some cases death.
The findings come as the trial of NHS doctor Dhanuson Dharmasena, 32, accused of carrying out FGM in the first prosecution of its kind in the UK, continues. He denies the charge.