Female Genital Mutilation, the custom of surgically removing all or part of a young woman's genitalia, has been dubbed the most dramatic form of gender violence. So it may come as a shock to know that in the UK an estimated 74,000 first generation African immigrant women have undergone FGM and a further 7,000 under–16s are thought to be at risk each year. A similar story exists in many European states where migrant communities from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, and the Yemen have settled. Yet the UK is the only country which specifically outlaws the practice. Last month the original 1985 legislation was renewed and strengthened by a Private Members Bill. The new law increases the maximum penalty from five to 14 years' imprisonment and closes a loophole which had allowed young girls to be sent abroad for the surgery.

The formal recognition that FGM is not simply an African problem must be welcomed. Some might argue that this is an example of a peculiarly British regard for universal human rights. "Female Genital Mutilation is a barbaric practice that is rightly illegal in this country," announced David Blunkett. "This dreadful procedure has no place in modern, civilised Britain."

But is the back–slapping justified?

It could be contested that the strengthened law is simply another sign of British double standards and intolerance. After all, British society has always, if selectively, accepted physical mutilations as a part of cultural identity or for aesthetic improvement. Male circumcision and breast enlargements fail even to raise an eyebrow with most of us these days. Designer vaginas are the latest fashion winging their way here from LA clinics.

Yet ultimately, these are weak comparisons. FGM is different from these practices because of the extreme pain and disfigurement involved as well as the severe immediate and long–term health risks. These include haemorrhage, chronic infection, infertility and childbirth complications. One Kenyan gynaecologist estimates that 15 per cent of procedures carried out lead to death.

And these risks are inflicted on children who usually have no say in the decision. The most common group undergoing FGM is four to 13–year olds and experts say it is getting younger in the West.

So the hypocrite argument is feeble. But how effective is the UK legislation likely to be?

While the message being sent out is the right one, over the course of nearly 20 years since the FGM Act was first in place there has not been one single prosecution. It is difficult to see how the new threat of longer sentences will have any impact at all, even as a deterrent. In any case, as the parents are often involved in perpetrating the act, we need to ask whether a policy which encourages long sentences is in the best interests of the child.

FGM does not simply sit alongside other child abuse offences. The motivation is based on a view of the best interests of the child grounded in fears about protecting long–term security, dignity and even health. One reason for FGM is the myth that contact with the clitoris may do damage to a newborn baby.

The likely impact of the ban on taking girls on 'holiday' for FGM surgery is also unclear. Though it will empower some childcare professionals who have been aware of the practice to take more assertive action, detection is still likely to remain a major obstacle. It would hardly be acceptable to enact blanket monitoring. This would demand very intrusive health checks on children deemed at risk before and after leaving the country.

So what should the UK be doing to counter FGM? The best weapon we have is education. The Department of Health made advances in this area in 2001 through funding the charity FORWARD to administer cross–discipline training to a range of professionals who come into contact with those at risk. But inherent problems in collecting data mean that the extent to which this single programme has improved prevention, diagnosis and care is unknown. As long as FGM remains off the radar of the majority of health workers we can assume that many cases still go unrecognised and untreated.

Further, education for prevention really needs to be directed at the communities that practise FGM — those who are convinced that it is in the best interests of their children since they defend it as a defining aspect of the minority cultures they seek to protect against the infringement of corrupting Western influences.

There is a danger that any criticism will be seen as culturally invasive. Policy–makers who have previously fancied challenging the institution of arranged marriages have similarly found themselves paralysed by this contradictory position. In both cases, the most powerful agents of cultural change are those within these communities who are opposed to these practices and who are campaigning against them.

Overall, though, in the case of FGM the health argument, rather than any gender–based or cultural case, is the most likely to prevail. The medical grounds are so strong here that they provide the best opportunity for reform by appealing to universally held principles. Dispelling myths and highlighting genuine medical dangers naturally encourages communities to reconsider how FGM may fit into their own moral framework. Offering support rather than criticism by investing in African community–led programmes designed to educate against FGM may be the most effective means.

Learning from and about cultural difference does not mean descending into an abyss of cultural relativism or adopting a hands–off approach for the sake of political correctness. But let's not waste time smugly legislating when in reality there are a host of far more effective ways the Government could help tackle this horrific abuse of young women's human rights.