Towards the elimination of FGM in Kurdish Northern Iraq

Since 2004 Wadi has been operating a number of teams to raise awareness against FGM in different regions of Iraqi Kurdistan. When they visit a village they collect the women, talk to them, ask for their needs and living conditions, build up a relationship. They provide lectures on women’s rights, female health, FGM, screen an awareness film and discuss these topics with the women. Breaking the taboo is the condition precedent to a future behaviour change. The teams avoid to impose a certain point of view, but they insist on the facts. Dialogue and debate among the women (and men) are firmly encouraged because real change can only be based on a collective decision.

If the community is at least partly cooperative – which is usually the case – the relationship will be lasting. After a while the team will come back for another visit , and then again and again, so they can accompany and support the community on its way to abandon FGM.

The approach proved to be effective. In those areas where Wadi concentrated its efforts a substantial reduction of the FGM rate could be detected. However, it is arduous, protracted work, and the three or four teams Wadi managed to deploy were certainly not able to cover the whole region. So the region-wide impact remained fairly limited.

This is now about to change. UNICEF has stepped in to boost Wadi’s initiative. Members of six other local organizations were trained to fulfill the same task as Wadi’s mobile teams. They are now in the field, still supervised by Wadi.

Thanks to this initiative the number of FGM awareness teams operating in Iraqi Kurdistan skyrocketed from 4 to 10. The region is now much better covered. In September 2014 alone, all teams combined met more than 1,600 women in more than 100 locations. The region has an estimated 5 ½ million inhabitants.

The additional workforce will contribute to a faster eradication of the practice. However, reports from areas not much visited so far indicate that enormous efforts still lie ahead. The domestic violence law which was adopted in 2011 and prohibits many forms of violence against women and children, including FGM, is still widely unknown. Many women do not have the the faintest idea of the meaning of women’s rights. In their society, men have rights and women have duties. Traditional notions of honor and shame rule all aspects of life. Violence against women is perceived as part of the natural order of things. Children are not seen as individuals, but more treated as property. Obedience and submission are the main virtues. All these perceptions are strongly correlated to the practice of FGM and need to be questioned and discussed in order to achieve a sustainable change of behaviour.

These are some fates of women randomly collected by the new teams during their sessions (all names changed):

Erbil governorate:

In the village of K.D., all the husbands and fathers were waiting outside the mosque while the women attended the session because they think it is a shame for a woman to be just a few meters from the house. All the women wore black. They are not allowed to wear other colors outside to avoid attraction.

•             Raana Abdullah is 76 years old from H.. She has 10 children and is mutilated. She said that she has never had any problems with her husband, however when she described her life, there were a lot of issues. She described how they mutilated her, that they forced her to go with 11 other girls; she was the seventh one and she kept yelling and crying. She said, “One of the woman became so angry and asked me: Why are you crying? We all have gone through it. It is a dead piece in your body, and if it stays then no one will ever marry you”. Due to these horrible experiences, she refused to mutilate her girls.

•             Maryam Khdr is 69 years old from S. village. She shared her story about how her mom mutilated her. She said, “My mom told me we are going to the bazaar to buy cake, and I loved cake so much. So I followed her. Instead we went to Aisha’s house, which was a house of a very old woman”. Aisha did not mutilate her because she said that Maryam needs to be older in order to be mutilated. She described that during these three years she could not sleep well because she knew one day she would get mutilated. One day when she was 9 years old, Aisha visited them and mutilated her. She says that with each teardrop, a lot of blood was coming out and she would never ever forget what happened to her.

•             Fatma Habib Allah Abdullah is 25 years old from K.W. She says that her stepmother mutilated her and if her mother had been alive she also would have mutilated her. No one in the house was accepting anything from her hands before getting mutilated. She got married twice because in her first marriage she could not satisfy her husband and he told her that he did not marry to be with a dead body. She cried and asked why no one understands that she does not like sex. However she said that her second husband is so good with her and tries to help her.

•             Shokhan Hasan is 59 years old from K.G. She talked about her mutilation and that her family mutilated her with a knife. After several years one of their relatives saw her and said she remembered that her mutilation was not deep enough and she needed to get mutilated again. She got mutilated again and she says that she never felt desire and always has problems with her husband.

Suleimaniyah governorate:

•             Kazhal Husein is 24 years old from B. She is married and has problems with her husband because he is much older than her. She has one child and became pregnant again recently. Her gloomy face described her life without taking the effort to share it. Her child is a girl and she would never let her to be mutilated because she does not want her to go through what she went through. Two major sadnesses in her life were her mother’s death and the day they mutilated her.

•             Taban Ali is 33 years old from L., she is married for the second time. She has sex-related problems with her husband. She said that she never cares about her outfit and clothes, which led her husband always to complain and say that she looks like a man. The team asked her why she is so careless and her answer was, “when I dress casually, people won’t claim anymore that I am a bad woman, so I don’t even want to attract my husband”. She underwent FGM. Her first marriage was daughter exchange marriage, where her brother gets a girl and in return they give a girl to one of the male members of the family. She was happy with her husband and they were planning to have a child, however her brother got divorced and so they forced her to get divorced, too. The women were returned due to contract rescission. She was pregnant when she was divorced, and her family forced her to abort the child. Now she is married to a man who is 30 years older than her. He treats her badly and tortures her.

•             Aamina Ahmed is 21 years old from K.S. She had a relationship with her husband before they got married. He loved her so much, but he could not marry her as long as she was not mutilated as his family requested. She went to her mom and told her, “Since you knew that I have to undergo FGM either in my childhood or now, why did not you mutilate me when I was young?” Her mom did not have the courage to mutilate her when she was a child; that is why she pushed away the idea. But then she brought her to a midwife to cut her. Aamina said she could not forget the pain she had. She went to hospital after that because the bleedings did not stop. She stayed three days in hospital, and since the doctors could not stop the bleedings, she died.

•             Shahla Omer is 44 years old from F. She has 7 children. Shahla started crying when the team talked about FGM and about its side effects. When the team approached her she said that she can never talk or describe her mutilation because it hurts her a lot. She said that it felt like the team only came to meet her because all the side effects the team was talking about described her.  She said that families immediately mutilate the girls, when they become a bit mature. She said that she had never had sexual feelings with her husband, although she loved him so much. They have a small house elsewhere, and she knew her husband often goes there secretly alone. One day she followed him and found out that he was meeting a woman there. She shouted at them, and then he beat her up publicly. She stayed in hospital for 10 days. Her brother did not allow her to get divorced as it is regarded a shame. So she went back while her husband kept insulting her. She says that if she had another place, she would never stay with him and accept that insulting.

•             Nashmil is a 26 year old woman from Q. She mutilated all her daughters and after the team’s seminar she realized why they always have problems with their husbands. One of her daughters cried and said that she loves her husband so much but she cannot satisfy him. He is so good with her and tries to help her, but she is afraid that he would marry another woman one day.

Duhok governorate:

•             Sawen Akrim is 44 years old; she has 5 daughters and 3 sons. Her daughters got married very young. She talked about a friend of hers who lives in Mosul and said that when she gave birth in the hospital, the doctor mutilated her by force as ISIS ordered. Therefore, Sawen is so afraid and does not want to go to hospitals anymore because of what happened to her friend.

•             Iman Khdr Ali is 33 years old. She is working and not married. She remembers one day a very old woman visited their neighbor’s house and most of the girls started yelling and crying. She was curious to see what was going on, so she entered the house. The midwife immediately took her and wanted to mutilate her until the house owner came and said, “Leave her she is not my daughter and her family does not practice FGM”. The midwife became so angry and started a discussion with Iman’s mom. However, her mom never believed in such a thing and refused.

•             Govary Muhammed is a 36 years old woman married to a divorced husband who has 3 children. Her husband is so bad with her and he tortures her. He insults her for getting married very late and he only wanted her to raise his children. Her husband’s children took an example from her father and started beating her as well. Sometimes he takes her to her parent’s house and forces them to spend money on her, as he claims he can’t. In the seminar she became so happy when she learned about the domestic violence law and she wanted to get her rights as soon as possible because she cannot live with him anymore.

Kirkuk governorate:

•             Nasrin Abdulla Aziz is 55 years old from H.A.; she has four daughters and one son. Now she lives with her son and all her daughters got married. Nasrin got mutilated and three of her daughters, too. She denied the side effects and said that even her daughters never had problems with their husbands. Her mother was a midwife and she was mutilating females; so she mutilated her daughters. She says that only one of her daughters was notmutilated and that is because they thought that she was naturally mutilated from birth.

•             Aalya Nuri is 52 years old from B. She has 4 daughters and one son. She says that from the first day of her marriage, she had sexual problems with her husband. She was 12 years old when she was mutilated. As a result of that, whenever she sleeps with her husband, she feels a very hard pain in her body. She says that her sister-in-law was not mutilated until she got married. Her family and her brother treated her so badly, they did not allow her to cook or even touch anything because they felt everything from her was haram, and she decided to mutilate herself. She took a knife and mutilated herself in the house just not to be harassed any more.

•             Leila Osman is 70 years old from Y. She got married 40 years ago. She was 30 years old and that was considered very old in that time. She says that because she did not get mutilated, it was hard to find a husband and when she got married her mother-in-law never ate from her hands. Then she mutilated herself and she says that she got hurt a lot. She kept having problems with her husband because each time they had sex she faced pain. She does not have any children because of that.

•             Asos Hama Rashid is a 35 years old woman from F.D. She was 7 years old when she was mutilated. She mutilated 8 of her daughters, too. She says that she cannot talk about it again because of what happened to her. She kept crying and the team could not get any information from her.