VICTIMS and people at risk of female genital mutilation (FGM) in the North-East are being urged to seek support in a bid to eradicate the practice.

Police, charities and other agencies have come together to mark the United Nation’s International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM, aimed at raising awareness of the practice, which affects around 137,000 women in the UK.

Noreen Riaz, project coordinator for Halo Project in Middlesbrough, which supports victims of FGM, said: “There’s no borough that is not affected by this. Women at risk of FGM are living in all areas of England and Wales.

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“We want to raise awareness to tackle and eradicate FGM and show a real commitment to ending it.”

FGM involves altering or injuring the female genitalia for non-medical reasons and is recognised internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women.

Police in Durham, Cleveland and Northumbria, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and specialist support services are working together to raise awareness about the issue in the hope of bringing offenders to justice and offering assistance to victims.

Ron Hogg, Police and Crime Commissioner for Durham, said: “We recognise FGM as a problem across the UK. It’s very important we get the message out there to potential victims and women living in fear of FGM.

“We want people to come forward, we don’t want people to be living in fear. If someone is living with it we can help – it’s important that they are aware of that and do not suffer in silence.”

He added: “We are not aware of any reports at all in County Durham and Darlington but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening. That concerns me. I would be very surprised if there were no victims of this living here.”

FGM has been illegal in the UK since 1985, though there has never been a successful prosecution.

It is also illegal for a UK national or permanent resident to carry it out abroad, or to aid someone in carrying it out abroad, even in countries where it is legal.

Caroline Airs, inclusion and community engagement manager for CPS North East, said: “We prosecute on behalf of the state and when we prosecute what we are saying is this behaviour is unacceptable in our society. That’s a really important message.

“It’s very difficult. There are very few cases coming to the attention of the police. We are still at the early stages of awareness raising and reporting.”

In the North-East, 20 FGM protection orders have been issued since 2015, which can be put in place to safeguard girls and women at risk of becoming victims.

The Halo Project, which has set up a centre at Durham University to raise awareness about the issues, is urging victims and those at risk to ask for help.

Ms Riaz added: “A lot of victims are told to never speak of it again and they don’t understand the short term and long term health consequences.

“We really want to encourage people to come forward and ask for help.

“There are safeguarding measures we can put into place.”