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This is child abuse... to be injured by your own family will leave a powerful sense of betrayal

By Fionola Meredith

Published 21/07/2015

It's a repugnant, dangerous practice with lifelong consequences, but there's still little widespread knowledge of FGM - female genital mutilation - in Northern Ireland. But just because we're not aware of it doesn't mean it isn't happening.

The NSPCC says it has had calls from people in Northern Ireland who are concerned about the risk of girls living here being forced to undergo the dreadful procedure.

That's why Justice Minister David Ford's intervention, introducing a new FGM protection order, the breach of which is a criminal offence, punishable by up to five years in jail, is a welcome move.

It couldn't come at a more timely moment. The summer holidays are - to use the chilling phrase - "the cutting season".

Schools are closed, and girls from families who cling to the belief that this barbaric practice is a necessary part of their daughters' upbringing may be whisked away abroad without too many questions being asked.

There they are subject to a monstrous abuse of their human rights: being held down while their genitals are mutilated, in the name of 'purity' or 'hygiene' or 'enhanced femininity', or any of the other spurious reasons offered for what is basically a brutally primitive way of controlling female sexuality.

The physical side-effects are bad enough - pain, infection, incontinence, in some cases even death - and later, there may be difficulties with sex and childbirth. But the psychological effects are devastating.

To be deliberately injured in such an intimate way, on the instructions of her own family, must leave a young girl with a powerful sense of betrayal, rage, fear and shame.

This is not just a one-off trauma. The consequences will echo throughout her life.

It's vital that we don't turn a blind eye to issues like FGM, for fear of offending cultural sensitivities.

Yes, it is important to respect difference, but there is no religious or cultural defence for such an assault on young girls' anatomy and autonomy. It is child abuse, plain and simple.

Anti-FGM campaigner Leyla Hussein says that she was cut when she was seven years old.

"Four women held me down," she writes.

"I felt every single cut. I was screaming so much I just blacked out. I didn't know what female genital mutilation was until the day it happened to me."

There's no justification for this act of gross barbarity. It has to stop.

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