SINCE 2012, the UN General Assembly has designated February 6 as International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).

According to Unicef, at least 200 million girls have been subjected to the practice of FGM across 30 countries, but the exact number remains unknown. In 2020, 4.1m girls across the world are at risk of undergoing FGM.

FGM is already illegal in Scotland. However, the Female Genital Mutilation (Protection and Guidance) (Scotland) Bill, which has been the focus of my committee’s work over the autumn, aims to further strengthen the law and protect women and girls.

During evidence sessions we heard from women’s organisations, academics, human rights experts, midwives, educators, police and other professionals. They told us about their work with women and communities affected by FGM, about the support and information they provide, and the impact this Bill will have on them.But it was when we were out of the Parliament that we heard the most powerful evidence.

Throughout the summer, members of the committee visited organisations in Glasgow and Edinburgh, meeting with survivors and front-line workers. We talked to them about the Bill, and the difference protection orders might make to them. We talked about how Scotland can better deal with FGM, and prevent it happening.

In my time as a local councillor and as a member of our Scottish Parliament, I have had cause to reflect often on how we make sure the voices of the women and girls we are making policy or law about are heard. The phrase “hard to reach” is not one I accept in our work – some people are easier for policy makers to ignore than others perhaps. In collecting people’s “stories” we do so in a way that acknowledges the emotional impact sharing deeply personal life experiences and feelings can take.

For this Bill we did so through a series of workshops. Women affected by FGM told their experiences in their own words, creating short films for the committee. This meant they could be anonymous but tell their story their way. These digital stories are powerful, and difficult, viewing. I urge readers who want a greater understanding of the impact of FGM on women in Scotland to watch them.

WATCH: The digital stories of the impact of FGM in Scotland

When we’re talking about FGM the word “story” doesn’t sit comfortably though. It suggests a neat narrative, and a happy ending. For many of the women we heard from, neither of those is true.

These digital stories show it is a very real thing for women in Scotland. FGM is part of a continuum of violence against women and girls, a further reflection of how unequal the male and female world is.

There is no one culture or community that practices FGM. It is found around the world, and it is always a fundamental violation of human rights.

Everyone is of course entitled to the same human rights. But, it’s important to recognise that when we try to realise rights, we all come from different starting points. For the women and girls facing the threat of FGM, or the consequences of having had it done to them, that starting point can seem a long way back.

The women who spoke to us, and who shared their digital stories, want to be involved. They have the lived experience, and they must be at the centre of work on this change of law going forward. From women, and from communities, we heard their need for support.

Legislation in isolation will not stop FGM in Scotland. For this Bill to work, we must look at the support these women need, and we should put them at the heart of developing it. That is the way we ensure this Bill makes a meaningful change for individuals.

As well as their individual accounts the women created a story all together, with their thoughts and hopes for this change to the law. It seems right to give them the last word: “Do not doubt stories about FGM. They are real. We want our thoughts and our voices to be heard in our own words. We want change and we hope our experience can help bring this change about.”