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Stop this barbaric practice now

SOMEONE is finally doing something about the scandal of female genital mutilation and the fact that in the UK, about 140,000 young women live with the legacy of such "cutting", with many thousands more at risk of the procedure.

That someone is David Cameron, who announced last week he would make it a legal duty for doctors, teachers and nurses to report cases of female genital mutilation (FGM). He said: "This really is about the world we want children like my daughter to grow up in."

He's right. None of us should want a world with FGM in it. Indeed, we should be ashamed to live in a country that so far has failed to prevent this violence against women, which is used to control their sexuality and make pleasure a male-only privilege - all in the name of "purification".

But Cameron, though he appears to be the hero and crusader, is in fact responding to a burgeoning wave of pressure, petitions and testimonies by courageous victims such as Fatou Baldeh, all saying that this must end, and despairing at the fact that it has not - yet.

Of course, we should celebrate Cameron's declaration - even if it has arrived, rather conveniently, at a point when he is seeking to court women voters.

Unfortunately, it comes tinged with the sadness that accompanies changes that are rather too little, too late. Earlier this year, MPs described our failure to tackle this issue as a "national scandal" in a House of Commons home affairs select committee report. Last week, the report's authors criticised Cameron's strategy as not enough, saying that what is needed are more preventative measures, including FGM protection orders to prevent girls being taken away to other countries for so-called "cutting".

Back in 2003 when Labour created the Female Genital Mutilation Act, it appeared action was finally being taken - but the following decade saw no prosecutions. In Britain, we criminalised the act in 1985, only two years after France, yet they have had 100 convictions, while we have had none. We have to ask why,

We have known about FGM for decades - Gloria Steinem wrote about it in 1979. Journalists and researchers have documented the horrifying ways in which girls, sometimes as young as five, are forced into a ritual which they do not understand.

FGM ranges from partial or total removal of the clitoris to a more extreme process called infibulation, in which almost everything - including the clitoris and labia minora - are cut off, and the labia majora stuck or sewn together, leaving only a small hole for urine to pass out. Often, in order for these women to have sex, they are cut by their husbands with a knife first. Needless to say, the health impacts are wide-ranging. Only 15% of FGM is infibulation (though that amounts to 90% of all operations in Sudan, Somalia and Djibouti), but the lesser versions also have health risks.

Why has progress been so slow? In the UK, the response to stories and testimonies has been shock: to the extent, perhaps, that we don't actually want to look there, and we fail to digest the reality. One story from Iraq last week illuminated the degree of our horror. The Sunni Islamist group Isis has been guilty of many an atrocity in Iraq and Syria, and international reaction has often been slight, but reports that Isis jihadists had ordered the mandatory FGM of all women between the ages of 11 and 46 in Mosul quickly went viral. The story was denied by the jihadists and declared a hoax by experts. However, the possibility of FGM being inflicted on four million women preoccupied news outlets. Our horror at the prospect had us transfixed.

One barrier to change in the UK has been the fact that women within the cultures concerned are often the practice's fiercest defenders. Meanwhile, those who are brave enough to step outside their communities, to tell their tale or to condemn the practice, have been ostracised and suffered death threats.

But the main problem is that driving out this so-called "culture" or "tradition" does not sit easily with our ideas about multiculturalism. In France, they don't have this issue. There, campaigner Isabelle Gillette-Faye has criticised the British acceptance of "everything in the name of tolerance", particularly when it is the "abuse of girls through mutilation and forced marriage". Our softly-softly, non-interfering, culturally sensitive approach stands in stark contrast with France's zero-tolerance strategy of education, shaming, prevention and punishment.

FGM is already illegal in most of the countries in which it is practised, and figures are falling globally, though still too slowly thanks to lack of reporting, pursuit and prosecution, and perhaps lack of sufficient will.

David Cameron has called for the practice - along with childhood forced marriage - to be outlawed globally, "everywhere and for everyone within this generation". One wishes him much luck in this world-changing cause.

First, though, he should make sure he really is doing everything possible to prevent it for everyone, everywhere within the UK.

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