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Police target 'high risk' flights in fight against Female Genital Mutilation

Sarian Karim Kamara. Photo: Press Association

Sarian Karim Kamara is an impressive woman. A mother bringing up four daughters and a son, about to embark on a Masters degree in social work, and a tireless campaigner against Female Genital Mutilation.

Sarian was born in Sierra Leone, where 94% of the female population have been subjected to FGM. She was "cut" at the age of 11. Sarian tells me her excitement at "becoming a woman" swiftly turned to anger at what had been done to her. It has affected every aspect of her life, from her health to her relationships and the birth of her children.

And so last night Sarian was at Heathrow Airport, meeting passengers on an inbound flight from Sierra Leone, as part of Operation Limelight.

Coordinated by the Metropolitan Police, it's a national operation targeting international flights heading to and from the countries where FGM is prevalent. The countries where girls living in the UK are illegally sent each year to be "cut" and then flown home.

On outbound flights police officers and volunteers like Sarian talk to passengers, engage with them, and hand out booklets explaining that taking a child abroad to be mutilated carries a penalty of up to 14 years in jail.

On inbound flights the mission is the same, but officers are also on the look-out for young girls who may be victims and those travelling with them who may be offenders.

This week of action has been the fourth since August, and the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe tells me they already have a number of "ongoing investigations" as a result. And with the authorities under fire for only bringing one FGM case to court so far, he also readily admits he's keen to get prosecutions as part of the process of raising awareness.

But Sir Bernard also makes it clear there's only so much an operation like this can achieve. Informing people FGM is illegal is important, but it won't tackle the root causes: deeply embedded attitudes about honour, chastity and womanhood.

Real cultural change, GP Phoebe Abe tells me, requires much greater effort by everyone who works with communities who practise FGM.

Dr Abe has 56 patients who have been mutilated, including 8 girls under 16. Even highly educated young mothers come to her unaware that what they are planning for their daughters is illegal:

They even openly discuss their plans to travel abroad at the school gates.

So it is social workers, teachers, GPs and nurses who must also step up to their responsibilities. For despite great publicity, too many aren't looking hard enough for at-risk girls, or turning a blind eye to the warning signs.

Sarian tells me a story that illustrates just that. Two months ago she went for a cervical smear.

The nurse saw how she was mutilated, and knew from Sarian's notes that she had four young daughters. But she said nothing. Sarian waited and waited to be asked, until eventually she became so angry she challenged the nurse about why she hadn't spoken to her about FGM.

Her embarrassed answer: she hadn't yet been trained how to broach the subject.

So much already achieved, but still so much still to do