Female Genital Mutilation - Child Abuse and Nothing Less

03/10/2012 17:22 BST | Updated 03/12/2012 10:12 GMT

Thousands of girls are being forced to go through the horror of having their external genitals cut away in the name of tradition.

What actual happens to these girls would turn your stomach. But please don't turn away and dismiss this as a minority issue or something that is happening to somebody else, somewhere else. This is child abuse and it's happening now to girls in the UK.

This extremely painful and harmful procedure is being carried out in communities originating from parts of Africa, the Middle East and the Far East. They believe it prepares girls for adulthood and marriage by ensuring they are 'clean, chaste and faithful'.

Incredibly most victims are aged just 4 to 10 years old and some are even babies. It is often carried out without anesthetic and causes them immense physical and psychological pain not just at the time but throughout their lives.

I will save you here from a graphic description of what happens during female genital mutilation. The ones that are not being saved from this are the young victims. Though female genital mutilation is against the law in the UK, there are over 20,000 girls in England and Wales alone who are at risk and this is considered an underestimate, yet not a single person has ever been prosecuted for this crime.

I have just attended a roundtable discussion hosted by the Crown Prosecution Service looking at why the UK has failed to prosecute anyone for carrying out this barbaric act on children. What is clear is that despite the law the main barrier to prosecution is in identifying the victims and perpetrators in the first place.

As with other forms of child abuse, these crimes often remain hidden and unreported, as children are too ashamed or afraid to speak out or just too young. In cases of female genital mutilation they may also be under pressure from their community and fear criminalising their parents.

Prosecutions are important because they will send a strong deterrent signal that this will not be tolerated by society and result in punishment. But we must also remember that prosecution only provides legal justice, it will not take away a child's pain.

The desire for justice needs to be balanced against what is in the best interest of the child whose well-being should be paramount throughout the legal process. If we are to successfully prosecute their abusers we must allow children's voices to be heard in this debate.

But even more important than punishing the guilty is preventing the innocent from suffering in the first place. However there is still a lack of awareness amongst communities affected by female genital mutilation that this is even a child protection issue and a crime. We must work with communities where parents believe that female genital mutilation is in the best interest of their child if these beliefs are to be challenged.

No religion condones child abuse and we must not let any cultural justifications blind us to the fact this is abuse. If we are to keep these children safe we must put their interests above everything else.

We need to equip professionals who may come into contact with children at risk, such as teachers, social workers and medical staff with the knowledge and confidence to identify and respond to cases of female genital mutilation. They need to treat this as a child protection issue and nothing less.

But professionals can only do their job if we all support them by reporting any concerns we have about a child. Every child in the UK, whatever community they belong to deserves the same protection from abuse and we must all take responsibility for this.

Anyone concerned about the safety of child can contact the free NSPCC Helpline on 0808 800 5000 or visit Children can get help through ChildLine on 0800 1111 or at