Anti-female genital mutilation (FGM) campaigners are calling for primary schools to start teaching pupils about the issue when the new relationships and health education curriculum is introduced next year.
It will be a compulsory part of secondary education from 2020, but experts fear that for some vulnerable girls these lessons will come too late.
Most girls who are subjected to mutilation undergo the practice before they are 10-years-old, according to the National FGM Centre’s research.
The process, which involves removing a female’s external genitalia, was banned in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in 2003 but persists in some communities.
Young girls are often taken abroad to be cut.
Earlier this year, England saw its first successful prosecution of an FGM case, which involved a three-year-old girl mutilated by her mother.
The National FGM Centre – which is a partnership between children’s charity Barnardo’s and the Local Government Association – wants to see the practice completely stamped out by 2030.
It says teaching the issue across the country, regardless of the demographic of the community, is beneficial as it teaches children their body belongs to them and no-one is allowed to harm them.
Leethen Bartholomew, head of the National FGM Centre, said: “While some may have reservations about children being taught about this issue at primary school, the work of the National FGM Centre has shown this can be done in a child-centred, age-appropriate way.”
“By teaching primary school pupils about FGM, we are empowering the next generation to speak up about the issue,” he said.
“But it’s not just down to the next generation to break the silence.
“Everyone, regardless of their community, gender or profession must be part of this conversation, so FGM becomes less of a hidden crime.”
The National FGM Centre has produced guidance for primary school teachers about how to introduce the subject and how to engage with parents and support them in discussion with their children.
A spokesman for the Department for Education said: “It is important that all children understand that FGM is an abhorrent crime which causes immeasurable harm to its victims and their families.
“From September 2020, as part of the new relationships and sex education curriculum, all children will be taught that FGM is a criminal offence and about the emotional and physical damage it causes.
“Whilst it must be taught in secondary school, primary schools can choose to teach it if they think it is appropriate for their cohort of pupils and provided it’s taught in an age-appropriate way.”