Human Rights

Iraqi women strive to end genital mutilation



Iraqi Kurdish women watch Noruz celebrations from a rooftop in the town of Akra on March 20th. [Safin Hamed/AFP] 

Dark skies were threatening rain over a village in Iraq's Kurdish region, but one woman refused to budge from outside a house where two girls were at risk of female genital mutilation.

"I know you are home! I just want to talk," called out Kurdistan Rasul, an Iraqi Kurdish activist with the non-profit WADI, who is on a crusade to eradicate female genital mutilation (FGM).

FGM, in which a girl or woman's genitals are cut or removed, was once extremely common in the Kurdish region, but WADI's campaigning has chipped away at the practice.

Rasul, 35, who herself was cut at a young age, is helping to eradicate FGM in the village of Sharboty Saghira, east of Erbil.

She has visited 25 times, challenging its imam on perceptions FGM is mandated by Islam and warning midwives about infections and emotional trauma.

That morning, she used the mosque's minaret to invite villagers to discuss their health. When eight women entered, she patiently described FGM's dangers.

At the end, a thin woman approached Rasul and said her neighbour was planning to mutilate her two toddlers.

That sent Rasul clambering up the muddy pathway to the house, first knocking then frantically demanding to be allowed in.

But the door remained shut.

"We are changing people's convictions. That is why it is so hard," Rasul said, reluctantly walking away.

'Just a child'

FGM appears to have been practiced for decades in Iraq's Kurdish region, usually known for more progressive stances on women's rights.

Victims are usually between four and five years old but are impacted for years by bleeding, reduced sensitivity, tearing during childbirth, and depression.

The procedure can prove fatal, with some girls dying from blood loss or infection.

After years of campaigning, Kurdish authorities banned FGM under a 2011 domestic violence law, slapping perpetrators with up to three years in prison and a roughly $80,000 fine.

The numbers have dropped steadily since.

In 2014, a UN children's agency (UNICEF) survey found 58.5% of women in the Kurdish region had been mutilated.

This year, UNICEF found a lower rate: 37.5% of girls aged 15 to 49 in the Kurdish region had undergone FGM.

It compares with less than 1% across the rest of Iraq, which has no FGM legislation.

"She cut me, I was hurt and cried," said Shukriyeh, 61, of the day her mother mutilated her more than 50 years ago.

"I was just a child. How could I be angry at my mother?"

Shukriyeh's six daughters, the youngest of whom is 26, have all been cut too. But with so much campaigning against FGM, they have declined to do the same to their girls.

Years ago, 38-year-old Zeinab allowed female relatives to cut her eldest daughter, then three.

"I was so scared that I stayed far away and came to wash her after they cut her," she recalled, squirming.

After WADI's sessions, she protected her other two daughters from mutilation.

"At the time I accepted (it), but now I would not. Yes, I regret it. But what can I do now?"

'Women against women'

Rasul said it was hard to combat a form of gender-based violence that women themselves practiced.

"Young men and women agree FGM should stop. But after we leave a village, older women talk to them and tell them: 'be careful, that NGO wants to spread problems,'" she said.

UNICEF's 2014 survey found 75% of women saw their own mothers as the most supportive of cutting.

"I tell these women: this is violence that you are carrying out with your own hands -- women against women," Rasul said.

That proximity has also made FGM victims less likely to seek justice.

"The 2011 law is not being used because girls will not file a complaint against their mothers or fathers," said Parwin Hassan, who heads the Kurdish Regional Government's anti-FGM unit.

Hassan has wanted to work on the issue since she narrowly escaped it: her mother pulled her away from their midwife after a last-minute change of heart.

"I have been working on women's issues since 1991, but this is the most painful for me. That is why I promised to eradicate it completely," she said.

She said Kurdish authorities would unveil a strategy next year to strengthen the 2011 law and carry out more awareness campaigns.

And for its part, the UN expects it can better fight FGM in 2019, partly due to the reduced threat posed by the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS).

After ISIS emerged in 2014, UN agencies scrambled to deal with displaced families and combat operations, said UNICEF gender-based violence specialist Ivana Chapcakova.

"Now that the acute emergency is over, we can regroup to have that final push towards making FGM a thing of the past everywhere in Iraq," she said.

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