Holland. Minister plans examinations at age four, nine and 13 to end illegal practice. Clare Chapman reports
All girls may soon have to go through regular examinations to ensure they have not undergone genital mutilation.
Hans Hoogervorst, the health minister, has promised to tackle the issue following calls from the Anti-Female Genital Mutilation Commission to rid Holland of the illegal practice.
He has proposed a pilot scheme in two cities, under which doctors would examine all girls at the ages of four, nine and 13 for signs of the procedure.
The pilot will inform a decision on whether to make the checks compulsory across the country and whether to include checks on all girls and boys for physical and sexual abuse.
Health experts are debating whether to stage school visits to carry out the tests or whether to force parents to bring children to health clinics.
Those who fail to take part voluntarily will get follow-up visits from health inspectors. The project will be supported by a public information campaign.
Bas Kuyk, press spokesman for the Health Ministry, said: "Initial research has already begun in Amsterdam and Tilburg where the pilot projects will be carried out, to find out the best way of getting the campaign across to the public and implementing the examinations."
He said the two cities were chosen as they had a large community of eastern Africans from countries such as Somalia, where female genital mutilation is widely practised as part of the culture. He added so far no groups had spoken out against the introduction of genital checks.
"As well as checking for female genital mutilation, we also want all girls and boys to be examined for other signs of physical or sexual abuse," said Mr Kuyk.
Every year dozens of girls, mainly from African countries including Somalia and Ghana, are taken abroad for the procedure which carries serious health risks.
Official figures say 50 girls living in the Netherlands were forced to have the procedure last year, but it is believed the real number may be much higher. There are currently around 20,000 young girls on the at-risk list.
Female genital mutilation is illegal in many countries, including the UK.
The Dutch commission has argued that examination of every child would speed up detection.
After the pilot, minister Mr Hoogervorst will decide whether to make it compulsory for health professionals and child abuse centres nationally to report signs of such abuse.
But the pound;1 million start-up costs of the project may make politicians reluctant to pass a bill to introduce the checks.
The cabinet is also considering a separate law specifically banning female genital mutilation, which is currently regulated under laws banning abuse.
The commission claims a separate law will give a more definite signal to parents.
Female genital mutilation refers to the removal of part, or all, of the female genitalia.
The procedure consists of removal of the clitoris, and labia minora and cutting the labia majora to create raw surfaces, which are then stitched or held together to form a cover over the vagina as they heal. A small hole is left to allow urine and menstrual blood to escape.
Currently, only boys are examined at schools to make sure they are developing correctly.