Girls at risk of suffering female genital mutilation in the UK and those trying to stop it from happening to them are to be offered new help.
A new helpline is being launched by the NSPCC with the support of the Metropolitan Police and the Royal College of Midwives to combat what they said is an abusive practice being carried out on young girls and even babies.
More than 70 women and girls in the UK are seeking treatment every month for problems linked to FGM, the charity warned, saying the 1,700 victims referred to specialist clinics in the last two years were likely to be a fraction of the total affected by the practice.
The "illegal and life-threatening initiation ritual", common to some African, Asian and Middle Eastern communities in the UK, can leave young victims in agony and with physical and psychological problems that can continue into adulthood, the charity said.
Lisa Harker, the NSPCC's head of strategy, said: "The UK's child victims of female genital mutilation are hidden behind a wall of silence. Like other forms of abuse if female genital mutilation is not exposed it will continue to thrive and more children will suffer.
"Children who are at risk or victims of female genital mutilation often don't even know it is abusive and harmful because it is done at the request of their family. They are told they are unclean and immoral if they are not 'cut' and that it is in their best interest.
"There is also a huge pressure within these communities to keep quiet about female genital mutilation, with some people even being threatened with violence if they speak out. This is why we believe a dedicated helpline with specially trained child protection advisers is needed to help overcome the difficulties in protecting children from such a complex and secretive form of abuse."
Carried out in secret and often without anaesthetic, female genital mutilation involves the partial or total removal of the external female genital organs.
The free 24-hour helpline on 0800 028 3550 and dedicated email address email@example.com is aimed at anyone concerned that a child's welfare is at risk because of female genital mutilation and wanting advice, information or support, the charity said. This includes the children themselves, parents, other relatives but also professionals working with at-risk families.
Though callers' details can remain anonymous, any information that could protect a child from abuse will be passed to the police or social services.