A new police initiative to raise awareness of female genital mutilation (FGM) has been welcomed by organisations working with women affected by the practice.

As part of the Safer Travel Days campaign, Police Scotland officers based at Scottish airports provide information to passengers, airline staff and airport workers on the illegal practice and organisations that can help girls at risk. Posters have also been put up around airport buildings in a bid to reach as many people as possible.

The summer holidays – known as the “cutting season” - is the time girls are most likely to be taken from their Scottish homes and flown to the country of their ancestry to undergo FGM, which commonly involves the full or partial removal of genitals for non-medical reasons.

It is believed around 300 girls are born in Scotland every year to a woman originally from an FGM-practising country, thus potentially putting them at risk.

The procedure is most common in areas of eastern, western and north-eastern Africa, countries such as Mali, Sudan, Nigeria and Somalia, and in some areas of Asia and the Middle East.

The practice is associated with some local cultures and specific ethnic groups, and inflicted upon both Christian and Muslim girls from birth up to the age of around 15.

FGM is illegal in Scotland and the UK, as is taking a girl abroad to undergo the procedure or facilitating it in any way. Involvement carries a prison sentence of up to 14 years.

It is often carried out without anaesthetic and can lead to shock, haemorrhage, tetanus, sepsis and urine retention. Some women die from their injuries. Long-term consequences can include infections, pain, infertility, increased risk of complications during childbirth and loss of sexual sensation. Many women require surgery to ease the symptoms.

Fatou Baldeh, originally from Gambia now living in Edinburgh, was a victim of FGM at the age of seven. She now works with the Scottish-based Dignity Alert Research Forum to stop the practice and support other women who have undergone the procedure.

She told the Sunday Herald: “The implementation of the campaign during the summer holidays is fantastic. Despite the suffering and pain that results from FGM, families believe that by doing this they make their daughters marriageable, pure and clean, and conform to religious requirements. But FGM is not required by any religion.”

However, Ms Baldeh said police action was only “one part of the jigsaw”, and called for more training for teachers to spot vulnerable girls and better support and education for families from affected communities.

“Most girls at risk may not be aware they are in danger as they are tricked into believing they are going to meet family members and are having parties held for them.

“Those who have already suffered the horrific procedure are too scared to speak up as they fear being judged. We need professionals around these girls to be well-equipped to spot the signs of victims and those at risk.”

Jan Macleod, head of the Glasgow-based Women’s Support Network, provides information and training for education, health and social work practitioners across Scotland. But she believes the practice will only be stamped out through involving ethnic minority communities alongside the healthcare and justice systems.

She said: “Some parents come under pressure from family and or the community to arrange FGM for their girls and it is important that any parent in this position knows that they can approach agencies such as police, health or social work to help them protect their daughters.”

Ms Macleod added that her project was receiving an increasing number of enquiries from professionals on the ground, which could help ensure vulnerable girls are flagged up to the authorities as early as possible.

“Early intervention with vulnerable girls at birth, then through nursery and school, gives us the opportunity to work with family members and protect girls in the long term. Working with faith leaders can also bring a sudden shift in attitude.”

So far there have been no prosecutions in Scotland for what police describe as “one of the most severe forms of child abuse”.

However, Detective Chief Superintendent Lesley Boal, who heads up the force’s public protection unit, said recent public awareness campaigns were starting to bear fruit, as evidenced by an increase in police referrals.

In the first quarter of this financial year, nine vulnerable girls were flagged up to Police Scotland. In 2014-15 there were 19 in total, up from 16 the previous year.Ms Boal said: “We are taking direct action at airports across Scotland to remind people that this is an offence, that they can still change their minds and that support is available should they need it.

“Girls and young women can be taken abroad and return with no-one the wiser about what they may have suffered.

“We will take action against anyone who facilitates FGM and will continue working with our partners to come up with new ways to prevent this most severe form of child abuse.”She urged anyone concerned about girls who could be at risk of FGM to contact police.