Every school leader should be aware of the issues of female genital mutilation, says Hibo Wardere.

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a subject many adults feel uncomfortable discussing, but it doesn’t have to be that way. The young people I speak to don’t share the same reticence.

I spend most of my week talking with children and young people who are thirsty for information and understand that knowledge is power. This only reinforces my belief that we must do more to demystify the topic of FGM.

FGM is a life sentence for girls and women

School leaders can be the most reticent to address the issue. I recently suggested a training session with governors after one leadership team didn’t want me to speak to students. I explained to them not only what FGM was, but why young people need to be educated about it. By the end of the session, the governors had completely changed their minds.

What adults fear, children are not afraid of.

You always see this from what they produce during a workshop. In one hour, they understand everything and you can see not only what they feel, but how they want to set about tackling FGM.

In primary schools, the main aim is to make children body aware. We watch a video about a beautiful hand-stitched doll, whose body parts are gradually cut. All of a sudden, the nose is cut, the ear is cut. Then the children talk about how it made them feel, asking poignant questions, such as: “She was so beautiful – why did they need to cut this doll?” They react to the video with drawings and writing, and we discuss ideas about privacy and body image.

There are no euphemisms with secondary pupils, however, and I don’t hold back. They see pictures of FGM, and we talk about the physical and emotional effects of mutilation.

Often students go home and say to their parents, “What is this?” They want to talk about it, and some even find out that their parents have themselves experienced FGM.

Often students go home and say to their parents, “What is this?” They want to talk about it

It’s natural that some people feel reticent or removed from the subject of FGM. However, while there is no shame in a lack of knowledge, there is no excuse for those in charge of our young people to remain ignorant. Education is their right – they need to be told, to be protected. And while headteachers have a huge responsibility, they can also alter life chances for these pupils, simply by exposing them to the issues.

School leaders are increasingly willing to address the issue and rightly so. FGM is a safeguarding issue that affected 5,700 women and girls in England last year. However, these are only the cases that doctors and nurses recorded; the true extent of the problem is much larger, with the government estimating that about 65,000 girls under the age of 13 are at risk of FGM.

And it’s not just a problem of girls going abroad. A recent NHS report revealed that 18 cases of FGM were done inside the UK, even though it’s illegal and carries a 14-year jail sentence.

It is our duty to safeguard our youth. FGM is child abuse and needs to be talked about in the same way society would tackle any other child abuse. FGM is a life sentence for girls and women, inflicting pain and despair forever. It’s also a cause of domestic violence, depression and divorce, affecting every aspect of family life.

Talking about FGM is no longer taboo. These days, it’s even discussed on our breakfast radio shows. Every school leader should be aware of the issues.

The simplest way to do this is to make sure all teachers in the school are trained, and all pupils have been educated and given the space to discuss FGM.