Kurdish society is widely observed as being traditional, conservative and entrenched in customs that are religiously founded or possess ancient cultural heritage. Considering this conformist nature of Kurdish society it is relatively easy to understand why Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) has for many years been a topic that is “Taboo” and very difficult to openly discuss, since it related to women and their sexuality. When the Kurdish parliament originally decided to officially address the issue of FGM, debates were delayed on several occasions due to the perceived sensitivity of the topic in Iraqi Kurdistan, especially in rural areas. The topic was originally raised in parliament in 2006 and a law was eventually passed in 2011 that forbade FGM and was encompassed in a broader “Family Violence Law”, seemingly so as not to bring direct attention to the sensitive topic at hand.
FGM is a very serious issue and a research paper released in 2011 by the University of Freiburg, which was subsequently published in the European Journal of Psychiatry, contained clear evidence of the long-publicized relationship between FGM and psychological disorders. Results of the research found “alarmingly high rates” of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) (44%), depression (34%), anxiety (46%) and somatic disturbances (37%) among a group of 79 girls in Iraqi Kurdistan, who had been subjected to one form or another of FGM. The statistics are comparable to girls who had suffered early childhood abuse, further cementing the importance of protecting young girls from FGM.
As a result of the passing of legislation in 2011 by the KRG that prohibited FGM from being carried out in any of its provinces, the number of female circumcision cases fell by half, according to a report released by UNICEF in July 2013. However the report highlighted Iraq still as being one of the most prominent countries where FGM is being carried out, noting that 8% of Iraqi women between the ages of 15 and 49 had been subjected to some form of FGM when they were young. The vast majority of these cases were concentrated in Irbil, Sulaimaneyah and Kirkuk. The UNICEF findings also showed that just 5% of females in Iraq aged between 15 and 49 support the practice of FGM, most of who were from poorer, rural areas, notoriously bound more strongly by ancestral tradition.
There are widespread journalistic reports from Iraqi Kurdistan that there has up until now been very loose implementation of the ban against FGM, with a recent BBC documentary having given a rejuvenated prominence to the issue on an international level. A United Nations resolution dating back to 2010 officially ruled against the practice of FGM by any of its 194 Member States and UN agencies such as UNAMI and UNICEF continue to publicize the importance of continued resistance against the traditional pressures to practice FGM, especially on young children. In February 2013 the UN called upon “both the Government of Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government to take bold new actions” in order to further prevent occurrences of FGM, recognizing that it is still an issue that needs tackling.
According to Human Rights Watch, the KRG parliament and its local authorities need to continue to engage in the “difficult process of putting a comprehensive plan in place to implement the law, including informing the public, police, and health professionals about the ban on FGM”. Human Rights Watch has been one of the most prominent NGOs working in Iraq to advocate for action to be taken to completely rid Iraqi Kurdistan of this dangerous practice. Iraqi-German NGO ‘Wadi’ has also carried out extensive research into FGM in Iraqi Kurdistan and actively tried to raise awareness of the potential psychological and physical impacts and negative effects of FGM.
It appears that there is no shortage of effort from the international NGO community or local authorities in acting to try to eradicate the carrying out of FGM from Iraq. However it is a custom that is steeped in Kurdish cultural tradition and many still continue to find an interpretation that supports its implementation from within religious doctrine, although this continues to be widely debatable. The problem arises when cultural tradition and an age-long custom appears clearly to be infringing upon the rights of the individual, who is often faced with little choice but to conform to societal pressures. Certainly more work is required to eradicate FGM from being practiced in Iraqi Kurdistan, especially in its rural areas. However, awareness campaigning about the broad range of dangers regarding FGM and promoting the strict enforcement of protective legislation is having a definite positive effect upon this longstanding humanitarian issue.
Written by Benjamin Hargreaves, NCCI Communications Team, Jordan