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“I refuse to take my past into the future and regard myself to be an empowered survivor.” 

Today marks ‘International Day of Zero Tolerance to FGM’ as part of a worldwide effort to help raise awareness and put an end to female genital mutilation (FGM). 

Despite decades of campaigning, largely from victims standing up to their communities, the horrific on goings of female genital mutilation have only hit the headlines in recent years, bringing it to the attention of the general public and those in health, crime and social care institutions.    

FGM, which is when a girl’s genitals are either partially or totally removed for non-medical reasons, is traditionally carried out for cultural reasons and is thought to enhance the girl’s femininity, taking her from girlhood to adulthood. After being mutilated, usually at some point between infancy and the age of 15, girls from nine onwards are often kept secluded while older women teach them traditions of the community; from which point girls as young as 14 are forced to end their education and deemed ready to get married and start a family. 

The reality hits home with the alarming number of victims. FGM is said to affect 130 million girls and young women around the world. According to a report released last year by City University London, there are thought to be approximately 137,000 victims of FGM in England and Wales and around 60,000 at risk. 

The latest data, released just last week, from the Health and Social Care Information Centre shows that there were 558 newly identified cases of FGM and 2,146 active cases reported in December 2014 by hospitals in England. 

However, data on FGM is scarce given the secrecy and danger of the procedure. The recent high profile exposure of FGM has lead to an increase in reported cases, which clearly suggests it is taking place far more than can be accurately recorded. 

FGM has been a serious criminal offence in the UK since 1985, reinforced by introducing a prison sentence of up to 14 years under a law in 2003. No one has yet been prosecuted under this law; just this week, the first case of its kind in the UK saw an NHS doctor acquitted of carrying out FGM on a patient.

So what is being done to stop FGM from happening? 

To mark International Day of Zero Tolerance to FGM, the government has launched new measures with an aim to bring it to an end in the UK. This includes an investment of £1.6 million for the next stage of the FGM prevention programme in an effort to improve the NHS response. Improved training for frontline health workers on communicating sensitively with patients about FGM will be made available through new e-learning sessions launched by Health Education England. The current requirement placed on NHS acute trusts to record FGM incidences, will also be made mandatory for GPs and mental health trusts. 

An investment of £2 million has been announced through the government's Children's Social Care Innovation Programme for a new national scheme backed by Barnardo’s and the Local Government Association to create a team of specialist social workers with a background of working with those at risk of FGM. We are also reminded that the NSPCC launched its first national helpline to support those affected by FGM in 2013.

Further to this, numerous training courses are being held across the country to support and educate those who may be in a position to prevent further cases and help victims, such as social workers, health professionals, police staff and those working within education. 

Bal Kaur Howard, who has been employed by Suffolk Constabulary since March 2009 in their Domestic Abuse Unit as Project & Performance Officer for Honour Based Violence (Forced Marriage, Female Genital Mutilation) and Communities, advocates for victims and survivors. Born in India and brought to Britain aged one, Bal escaped her forced marriage before going back into education and, subsequently, has been disowned by her family for over 17 years. 

As a course trainer for Sanctuary Training’s courses for social workers on FGM, Bal is keen to share her experiences to raise awareness, reduce the isolation of victims and increase reporting. She said: “I refuse to take my past into the future and regard myself to be an empowered survivor.” 

Are you doing all you can to prevent and support victims of FGM? 

See how others are joining in to support International Day of Zero Tolerance to FGM by viewing the Twitter hashtag #FGM2015.

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