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Under the Knife: grading Iraqi Kurdistan’s progress against FGM

By Christina Asquith

Last month, Nigeria became the most recent African country to formally ban female genital mutilation, a barbaric practice performed on 150 million girls across the world. The move was cheered around the globe, but the celebration was tinged with some reservation. Realistically, most recognize, a piece of paper issued in parliament isn’t enough to combat a deeply rooted tradition stretching back thousands of years. Indeed, although the law “is a major boost not only for Nigeria’s women, but for the nation as a whole,” Stella Mukasa of the International Center for Research on Women told me, “The question is: Will it make a practical difference?”

In just the last five years, six other countries—Guinea Bissau, Kenya, Somalia, Uganda, and Zambia—have passed legislation banning female genital mutilation. In other words, the practice is now illegal in almost all the countries where the United Nations suspects it occurs. Evidence suggests that anti-mutilation efforts are reducing cutting rates in many corners of the globe. But worldwide, reports of women suffering from the practice are still rampant.


A mother and daughter walk home after a meeting of women from several communities who are working to eradicate female genital mutilation, in the western Senegalese village of Diabougom September 10, 2007. FINBARR O’REILLY / REUTERS

In fact, the United Nations recently estimated that at least 15 million more girls will be mutilated by 2030 worldwide. This figure includes newly discovered cases in remote regions of Iran and Indonesia, as well as in countries in which female genital mutilation is now illegal. Growing evidence of mutilation also exists in the West. A 2015 U.S. Center for Disease Control report noted that half a million girls—513,000—in the United States had either already been cut or were at risk. That number is up from 168,000 in 1997.

And the United Kingdom is rushing through laws this summer to prevent “holiday cutting,” a practice in which tens of thousands of immigrant girls are flown back to their countries of origin to be mutilated. The law would require teachers and health workers to report female genital mutilation, and would empower the police to prevent young girls from traveling to Africa if they believe they will be cut there.


Anti-female genital mutilation activists devote considerable effort to passing laws against this deplorable practice. So what practical difference does a law make against a practice that is so underground, intimate, and secretive that even family members and close friends often don’t know it has occurred?

A great case study comes from the Kurdish region of Northern Iraq, which is currently considered one of the world leaders in female genital mutilation eradication. Aid organizations there first discovered that the practice was occurring in 2003 as workers fanned out to the countryside in anticipation of a refugee crisis following the U.S. invasion and toppling of Saddam Hussein. The refugees never came, but aid workers got an earful about what was happening to girls in the village.

Eight years later, in 2011, the Kurdish regional government passed law banning female genital mutilation. It was the result of an arduous, around the clock, and controversial campaign to push the politicians into action, led by WADI, a small Iraqi–German NGO. Along the way, activists faced death threats and had their personal reputations smeared. But they were ecstatic when they finally emerged victorious.

Yet today, four years after the law was passed, Kurdistan has yet to see the first person fined or jailed in connection with practicing female genital mutilation. “We fought so hard for the law, but as soon as it was passed, we realized that the fight had only begun,” Arvid Vormann, a program manager at WADI told me.

Even so, in some villages in the Kurdish region, mutilation is down by more than 40 percent, and nearly a dozen villages have officially adopted a label of “FGM-free” for several years now, a practice first started in Africa. Aid workers thus argue that the symbolism of the legislative victory was worth the effort, even if it is now clear that it was mostly the campaign itself—and not the legislation—that moved the needle.


The anti-female genital mutilation campaign in Iraqi Kurdistan began in 2003 with a push to prove that the practice actually existed in the Middle East, something few people in Kurdistan and the international community seemed willing to admit. Before then, the practice was assumed to occur mostly in Africa. WADI conducted studies into the practice, but political leaders accused them of trying to attract foreign aid dollars and of working for political opponents who wanted to smear the reputation of Kurdistan. Strong social taboos also surrounded the practice, and the public was unwilling to openly confront the issue.

So WADI commissioned two filmmakers to go into the villages. Their ensuing documentary, “A Handful of Ash,” included scenes of midwives with bloody knives and little girls screaming in pain. It was a powerful and undeniable account of the practice in Kurdistan. In 2006 and 2007, local television stations aired the documentary, and health practitioners screened it in villages. Most members of the Kurdish parliament publicly refused to watch it. However a major tipping point came in 2009, when the quota for women in government seats was increased from 25 percent to 30 percent. Those female legislators took up the fight by supporting the new law.

Their campaign, many argue, would likely have met a dead end, though, if the fight had stayed local. But in June 2010, Human Rights Watch stepped in with a damning report on the issue, pressuring European commissioners in Berlin and Brussels to raise the issue as a human rights violation, and make their funding support contingent on change. Activists also personally visited officials from different European countries who supported Kurdistan to pressure them to bring up the practice in their meetings.

Meanwhile, WADI drafted a ban and collected 14,000 signatures in support of it. The pressure from the outside, combined with WADI’s local research and the Kurdish women parliamentarians, worked in getting the bill to a vote. The president refused to sign it, but it passed anyway in the summer of 2011. Now, anyone “instigating FGM,” including parents, faces a fine of between one and four million dinars. Those who conduct the surgery could receive between six months to two years in prison and a similar fine—more if the victim is a minor, as most are.


Of course, the law wasn’t the end of the story. “They didn’t translate the law, and they don’t implement it,” Suaad Abdulrahman who has advocated for WADI since 2003 against female genital mutilation, told me. She has grown cynical. “The government just wanted this law for the bookshelf and to show it to the Westerners and the journalists and say ‘look you see we have a very nice law’; and then they put it back on the shelf.”
In the hundreds of remote, dusty villages where female genital mutilation is practiced, activists realized that no one, not the police, elders, midwives, or even hospital workers, knew anything about the law, even years later. Further complicating things, the practice rarely occurs in institutional settings with licensed practitioners. Often the cutter is a grandmother and it occurs in a bedroom—an environment in which it is almost impossible for the government to interfere. And even the advocates’ best efforts didn’t quite defeat the perception of unmutilated women being dirty, which was deeply entrenched. Fathers were known to refuse to eat the food cooked by an uncut girl. Most listened first to local tribal elders and mullahs—not lawmakers from distant cities.


Suaad Abdulrahman meeting with the Tutukal village elder, 2015. CHRISTINA ASQUITH

And almost immediately, Islamic leaders opposed the bill. Within a month of the legislation passing, 500 imams signed a letter insisting that female genital mutilation was a sign of respect to husbands and acceptable for some women. One imam said on a radio show that a woman’s genitalia should be examined by a specialist to determine if she is the “type of woman” who necessitates the surgery, and spoke of how undergoing the mutilation will “make her face shine.”

In the villages, midwives also had a vested interest in perpetuating the practice. Villagers report that some midwives encourage mothers to get their daughters cut three times before they are ten by examining their genitalia and saying things like, “I can tell she is going to be a bad girl.” With each new mutilation, they collect payment.

Activists combated the backlash by evoking the fatwas against female genital mutilation issued by well-regarded Egyptian imams. Others debunked supposed sayings from the Prophet Muhammad that many mullahs used to justify the practice. They also tried to retrain midwives. Some local activists have pushed for enforcing the law by checking young girls to see if they have been cut and then prosecuting the parents. But that would be so invasive that few aid workers really push for it.

Activists say it’s better to try and bring change by raising awareness and offering incentives. And although many imams opposed the law, there was a small victory in the fact that they recognized the authority of a government-created law and chose to go through democratic channels to oppose it. “In even writing the letter opposing FGM, they were acknowledging the authority of the state,” Thomas von der Osten-Sacken, WADI director, told me. In places like Kurdistan, that’s a big step forward.

Activists must also take heart from the numbers: In Kurdistan, new data from WADI from 2013, which was based on studies of 5,000 women and girls, indicated that, whereas the majority of women aged 25 and older were found to be mutilated, the percentage in the pertinent age group, 6­–10 years, was close to zero in Halabja and Garmyan. In Suleimaniyah the rate of mutilation among 6–10-year-old girls was at 11 percent, in Goptapa 21 percent, and in Raniya (Wadi’s most recent operation area where the rate used to be close to 100 percent) it has now dropped to 48 percent.

And there have been similar changes in other countries. In Kenya, female genital mutilation rates in women aged 15 to 49 years fell from 38 percent in 1998 to 26 percent in 2008; in the Central African Republic, rates fell from 43 percent in 1994 to 24 percent in 2010.

“In countries where you have a government really engaged in the campaign, like a national program that’s actually read by the government, you do see great reductions,” GraceUwizeye, FGM Program Officer for Equality Now’s Nairobi office told me. And it is typically countries with women in government that put the most effort behind the enforcement. Regardless, eradicating female genital mutilation will be hard. “You’re changing the people’s perceptions and this takes a long time,” Uwizeye says. “If you’re building a school or hospital, its easy to show results, but when it comes to FGM and child marriage, you’re changing perceptions so it takes a while, and these practices have been going on for generation after generation so it takes time to end them.”


A counsellor holds up cards used to educate women about female genital mutilation in Minia, Egypt, June 13, 2006. REUTERS


Back in Tutukal, a tiny village several hours drive from the Kurdish city of Erbil, the mayor says he welcomes the law, but notes that it didn’t make as much of a difference as activists coming in and educating the women and raising awareness about the health dangers of FGM

The midwife there, Amina, estimates, that in her lifetime, she has cut hundreds of girls. Now in her 60s, she says she stopped after it became clear through radio programs and advocacy that there was no religious requirement for it. WADI has also retrained her as a midwife and ensured that she has other sources of income, but she still complains that the money is scarce and she wants more. “I will start cutting again,” she threatens with a serious look on her face.

To threats like that, Abdulrahman feels the law can be a tool. “At least she is honest, whereas most midwives will tell you they stop, when they keep doing it for the money. So I tell her, “You can not start again because we have this law and we will put you in prison.”

Whether the midwife listens is another matter.

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