Over the next week millions of school children will close their text books, throw uniforms in the laundry basket (or maybe on the floor!) and celebrate the start of the long summer holiday. This is a time for family holidays, summer festivals, lazy days with friends and self-expression away from the classroom rules. However, for far too many young girls summer fun will be cut short by fear, pain and the life changing consequences of female genital mutilation (FGM).
FGM comprises all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons (WHO, UNICEF, UNFPA, 1997). It is traditionally practised in 28 countries in Africa, parts of the Middle East and Asia as well as in immigrant communities worldwide. It often a secret practice so it is hard to determine exactly how many girls and women have undergone FGM but the United Nations estimates that 125 million girls and women are living with the consequences of FGM and a further 30 million girls are at risk over the next 10 years across 29 know practising countries in Africa and the Middle East.
Next week political leaders, experts and anti-FGM campaigners are gathering in London for the Girl Summit 2014 on tackling FGM and child marriage which takes place on the 22nd July. This Summit is aiming to create global commitment to the goal of ending these two harmful practices within a generation. We support this aim and believe it is long overdue for politicians and policy makers to show leadership on these issues which are two of the biggest challenges facing girls today and which harm not only those directly affected by entire communities.
Whilst the Summit takes place however, we must not forget those at immediate risk of FGM. In the UK, it is estimated that more than 20,000 girls are at risk of FGM (FORWARD, 2007) and for many of these the risk is at its highest in the long summer school holiday. This is because there is time for families to arrange FGM and for the girls to have some time to recover before they return to school making it less likely that the FGM will be noticed by the school and reported. Girls may be taken abroad for FGM but there are also reports of cutting taking place in the UK. Thousands of girls face this terrible ordeal despite increased public awareness of FGM and the fact that it is illegal to carry out FGM in the UK and also to take a British girl to another country for the procedure. That FGM is a serious issue in the UK was underlined by the publication of a hard hitting report to Parliament by the Home Affairs Select Committee on 3rd July 2014. The report stated that FGM was a "national scandal" and made strong recommendations for action to tackle FGM and safeguard girls.
It is important that we are all aware of FGM and that girls who are our neighbours and part of our communities may be at risk. Recent campaigns by the Home Office and police forces as well as the continuing work of anti-FGM campaigners and organisations have done much to raise public awareness and we all have an obligation to protect those who may be at risk and need our help to stay safe. It is also important that professionals such as health workers, social care teams and teachers are all trained on FGM and alert to the signs that a girls may be at risk. Last year a coalition of Royal Colleges, trade unions and Equality Now launched a report which made recommendations for identifying, recording and reporting FGM as well as good practice guidelines for professionals and these need to be implemented under a national action plan.
The Girl Summit will hopefully lead to meaningful action to end FGM and child marriage in a generation but we don't need to wait for the output from this gathering to do the right thing. Girls need our help and protection this summer, this week and this day.
Anyone who is concerned about FGM can either report this to the police or ring the confidential helpline established by the NSPCC on 0800 028 3550.
For concerns about child and forced marriage please contact the Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) on 020 7008 0151.
In an emergency situation when you think a girl is in immediate danger please ring 999.
Ann-Marie Wilson founded 28 Too Many in 2010, a charity working to end FGM and protect future generations of girls. Please visit www.28toomany.com for more information.