Ending Female Genital Mutilation: A Three-Step Process

01/10/2012 17:20 BST | Updated 01/12/2012 10:12 GMT

A gruesome practise exists around the world that can cause girls severe bleeding, incontinence and complications in childbirth later in life.

In the UK alone, 24,000 under 16s are at risk of suffering this painful and unnecessary operation. As you would expect, the procedure, female genital mutilation, has been illegal here since 2004 - yet not a single successful prosecution has been brought. Why not? And what can be done to protect these girls from having their clitoris and external genitalia cut out?

The Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 was passed to protect these girls and has swingeing penalties - 14 years in prison for perpetrators of this type of female circumcision. As a condemnation of the abuse of children, the Act is strong but has been weak in protecting the estimated 66,000 women who have already suffered this abuse.

Victims can be too young, vulnerable or reluctant to report their parents for prosecution, so few cases are reported and police may not have the support of the community to investigate them. Yet there is a clear pattern to the crime. Victims are girls whose families come from countries where FGM is commonplace, across West Africa, for example. They are absent from school, or return after the summer holidays. Their behaviour may change, they complain of pain, bladder or menstruation problems - all signs that could be picked up by alert schools or health professionals.

All health staff should be trained on FGM and schools need to raise awareness amongst staff and students. Only then will we get legal action. Just like the first cases of domestic violence decades ago, successful prosecutions for FGM depend upon awareness and understanding of the danger by neighbours, relatives, teachers, health professionals and police.

But prevention is better than prosecution for the child involved. In Plan's 75 years' experience working with children, we have found that stopping FGM in countries like Mali, Kenya and Pakistan is a three-step process. I have seen the three steps work.

First, through health professionals, spread the word in the community of the dangers of FGM. Secondly, develop community champions against FGM and get the backing of community leaders, teachers and law enforcement agencies. And thirdly, work with parents' groups and children's groups to raise awareness of what to do and who to go to if a child is threatened with FGM. By doing so, whole areas can be declared FGM free, community by community.

This approach works in Mali, a country where more than two-thirds of girls were subject to FGM. Now, village after village is declaring itself FGM free - a slow process depending on good information, trust, and understanding. If it works in the developing world, why can't it work here? By joining forces we can give our 24,000 girls the protection they need.