Girls may be forced to undergo female genital mutilation (FGM) abroad during the Christmas holidays, authorities have warned after more than 1,000 new cases were recorded in just three months.
The National FGM Centre said parents could plan the procedures during visits to see family, or they could be carried out by relatives without their consent.
The centre, which is run by Barnardo’s and the Local Government Association, said that although awareness was increasing there was a “long way to go” before the practice is stopped.
There were 1,060 newly recorded cases of FGM between July and September 2017, according to NHS Digital statistics.
More than 83 per cent of those happened before the girl had reached her 10th birthday and 20 per cent before she turned one.
In the same period, there were a total of 2,205 attendances by 1,760 women and girls reported at NHS trusts and GP practices where FGM was identified or a linked medical procedure was undertaken.
The figures are just a small fraction of the 137,000 girls and women believed to be affected by FGM in England and Wales in total.
The operations, sometimes known as female circumcision or by a variety of cultural terms, can be carried out between infancy and the late teens and are illegal in the UK under child abuse laws.
Procedures, which vary between countries and cultures, are frequently painful and traumatic and can cause long-term problems with health, sex, childbirth and mental illness.
Meg Fassam-Wright, acting head of the National FGM Centre, said that much of the abuse remains hidden within families and unaddressed in communities.
“We’ve come across girls who thought all girls had FGM…there are still people who are not aware it is illegal,” she told The Independent. “There are families where there is pressure for FGM to take place.
“There are cases where both parents are opposed to FGM but other family members, maybe overseas, feel strongly that this is something the daughter must be subjected to and engineer a situation where the parents are not present.”
Somalia, Egypt, Djibouti, Mali, Guinea and Sudan are among the countries where FGM is most prevalent but Ms Fassam-Wright warned people not to “be limited by sterotypes” when protecting children, adding: “People must not assume this is only affecting certain countries in Africa because that’s certainly not our experience.”
The National FGM Centre had worked with families from 47 countries, including some in regions where the practice is thought to be uncommon, she said, adding that girls can also be at risk in mixed heritage families.
Girls whose mothers or other female relatives have undergone FGM are considered at particular risk and anecdotal evidence suggests operations are happening at a younger age.
Teachers are being urged to raise the alarm if they hear girls talking about FGM, going to have a “special procedure”, or attend a ceremony to “become a woman”.
Professionals are being urged to look for signs of abuse, including girls having difficulty in walking or sitting down comfortably, taking a long time in the toilet, or behavioural changes such as becoming withdrawn.
Police can pursue relatives for child abuse or authorities can apply for an FGM protection order if someone suspects the practice will take place.
Michelle Lee-Izu, director of the National FGM Centre, said: “FGM is child abuse and no girl should ever have to live with the harmful physical and emotional consequences of this terrible practice.
“We believe the best way of preventing the practice is by working with girls and their families, raising awareness in schools and communities and training professionals like teachers and social workers to spot girls at risk of FGM and know how to report it.”
There are no health benefits to FGM and it can cause serious harm, including constant pain, difficulty having sex, infections leading to infertility, bleeding, cysts and abscesses.
Resulting problems in childbirth can be life-threatening for both mother and child and some girls have died from blood loss and infection during operations.
Some women may not remember having the FGM at all, particularly if it was performed when they were a young child or baby.
Social care workers and teachers in England and Wales have been legally required to report known FGM cases for under-18s to police since October 2015.
Any child or adult deemed to be at risk from the procedure must be safeguarded and it is illegal to carry it out in the UK, or to take a girl abroad to undergo FGM.
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