Female genital mutilation (FGM) is child abuse and no girl, or women, should ever have to suffer the physical and emotional impact of such harmful practice.
Last week, figures from the Health and Social Care Information Centre revealed that more than 1,000 women and girls with FGM were treated by the NHS in England and Wales in only three months.
This figure doesn't mean that new cases of FGM are on the rise, but rather that health professionals are paying better attention and are correctly identifying and recording patients with FGM. And so they should.
But we suspect these figures are only the tip of the iceberg. With mandatory recording duties for GP practices and mental health trusts coming into effect this month (1 October 2015), there will probably be an even bigger spike in numbers in the next data set. Only then can we begin to grasp the full scale of this issue in the UK.
FGM is affecting women and girls across the country, not just in areas with high numbers of people with African or Asian heritage. Health care professionals, social workers and teachers should be especially aware, as they too will soon play a key part in identifying women and girls who have undergone FGM.
FGM has been a crime since 1985. But Amendments to the Serious Crime Act 2015 mean that from October 2015, it will be mandatory to report 'known' cases of FGM on girls under 18 to the police. A date for the duty to come into effect is expected to be announced by the Home Office this month. The duty will apply to all regulated professionals working within health, social care and education in England and Wales.
'Known' cases of FGM are when a girl tells a professional that she's had FGM or, when a professional observes signs of FGM on a child's genitalia. Some professionals might find this very challenging. But it is possible, for example, that a girl tells a social worker that she was subjected to FGM during the summer holidays, or that a teacher assisting a girl to the toilet notices physical signs of FGM. Reports of visually confirmed or verbally disclosed cases of FGM will have to be made to the police the next working day and at least within one month.
High profile campaigns by FGM survivors and celebrities have helped to raise awareness over the last year. The ongoing challenge is to see real changes happening - actions that stop girls undergoing FGM here in secret or taken abroad; and to offer the right support to women and girls who have already been affected by this harmful practice.
Sadly, professionals across local authorities, health, education, the police and the voluntary sector lack the skills and confidence to provide the coordinated and joined up approach required to prevent, protect and treat girls and women affected by FGM.
I'm very pleased that Barnardo's is now at the very forefront to help push all of these good intentions into really good practice across the country. In partnership with the LGA and funded by the Department for Education's Innovation Fund, we've set up the first National FGM Centre to prevent, protect, and treat girls and women affected by or at risk of FGM.
One of the centre's first steps is to support professionals in understanding what the new duty of mandatory reporting means for them. To this end on 20th of October we will be holding our first conference in London, concentrating on mandatory reporting. Karen Bradley MP, Secretary for Preventing Abuse and Exploitation at the Home Office will be speaking, with anti FGM campaigners and professionals working in the field attending.
Through the National FGM Centre, Barnardo's and the LGA have also developed a national resource for professionals across England, combining expertise in social care, health, education, community engagement and youth work. We'll use these resources to enable professionals and local authorities to understand how the new duty affects them and ensure they are able to respond appropriately to girls affected in their local area.
Tackling FGM might be a slow and long process, but with every lesson learned we'll get a little bit further towards our goal. It's comforting to see the willingness among all agencies in this country to end new cases of FGM. We are certainly going in the right direction, yet we need to ensure that all the willingness and commitment is not just talk, but translates into tangible actions on the ground. Collaborative working will ensure that girls and young women will be safe from ever having to live with the physical and emotional consequences of FGM.