Iraqi Kurdistan: Free yourself from FGM – A new approach
By Suaad Abdulrahman and Arvid Vormann
In a remote village called Toutakhel, hidden amidst the endless hills of Kurdish northern Iraq, all the women had gathered. They said they were not aware of the dangers of female genital mutilation (FGM), which is still widely practiced throughout large parts of the region. Now they were willing to stop all violence and declare this in public, if only their children could attend secondary school in the next village, about 7 miles a stony, dusty pathway down to the riverside. “Without education”, they said, “we are nothing. We would rather die than leave our kids without education. We do not have much and we do not need much, but the children are our future.”
Every village is different. Toutachel people are very concerned with the future and well-being of their kids. There, like in many places, elderly men married young women, and some of the men had been married before and had several kids whom they all lost during Saddam’s genocidal poison gas attacks in the course of the so-called Anfal campaign of 1988. However, when they are talking about these horrifying experiences, it is as if it occurred last week and not decades ago. Now their new children have become very precious to them.
When they heard about Wadi’s new “FGM-free village” program the village chief and the people immediately agreed to join. The initiative was launched to increase public acceptance of abandoning the purported “tradition”. Several committed villages publicly swear to stop the mutilations in exchange for small community projects. Media coverage is expected to spread the news, thereby promoting the idea that stopping FGM must not be seen as contrary to the prevailing honor code.
The people from Toutakhel said they were very firm about their decision, and they wanted to be the first village to declare an official stop of FGM.
The German-Iraqi relief organization Wadi has now organized school transport for one year while trying to find a permanent solution in cooperation with the government.
Working with those who are willing to cooperate has proven an excellent strategy in the fight against FGM. It includes supporting progress in the name of human rights and denouncing consequently those backward forces that prefer silence over awareness and physical integrity.
The “FGM-free villages”, following an approved concept from Egypt, are designed to empower the people. Just a few courageous villages with a positive attitude like Toutakhel can already make a huge difference. Their example is as precious as gold and will hopefully encourage others to follow.
A change of behavior cannot be imposed. FGM is a social disease which will not be cured through equally distributed awareness alone. Without the grass roots commitment of the local communities, realities on the ground would only change very gradually. It is more a battle for the hearts and minds – comparable to a political movement, but strictly non-partisan.Accordingly, in order to combine forces, many organizations, human rights activists, artists, journalists and other committed individuals initiated the “Stop FGM in Kurdistan” campaign in 2007. It proved to be very successful in raising public awareness about the harms of FGM and increasing public pressure on the government.This activism finally contributed to this summer’s declaration of the new Family Violence Bill. The government made a huge step when, after years of relentless campaigning and lobbying, the regional parliament adopted a comprehensive law against many forms of gender-based violence and violence against children, including female genital mutilation. It came as a perfect surprise to many; however politics in Iraqi Kurdistan is often made behind closed doors.FGM will not disappear once it is forbidden. But while a law is not the only solution, it may well serve as another powerful argument against the practice.In the Kurdish region, most ordinary people welcome the “Family Violence Bill”. Islamic clerics and conservatives, however, immediately started a furious campaign against it, asserting that beating women and children is required by Islam and indispensable to preserve men’s honor.President Barzani was urged not to ratify it, the government however found another way: They ratified it through publishing in the official governmental bulletin. Shying away from further confrontation with the Mullahs and conservatives, they subsequently tried to hide any information about the existence of this law. Till this day, it has not been announced on the governmental website, and its implementation, although promised by the Prime Minister, has not been discussed in any way so far. It was Wadi which provided an English translation because the government failed to do so. Wadi also printed the law in a booklet and distributed it widely since it is a milestone in women’s and children’s rights and everybody should know about it.The law is not more, but also not less than a necessary step in the fight against the systematic mutilation of girls. In recent years, media coverage and awareness activities on the ground have already done a lot to decrease the acceptance of FGM, especially in certain areas. Wadi just received impressive confirmation about the effectiveness of their work, when in Garmyan region, where seven years ago rates exceeded 60% and mobile teams since then have been very active in spreading awareness on the dangers and aversive health effects of FGM, from 698 questioned girls up to 14 years of age, only 23 had been cut.Other areas have received much less attention, and although most people even in the remote villages noticed that nowadays some controversial discussions about FGM are going on, this violent act is still widely practiced. Wadi cannot visit every village and talk to everyone individually, but the FGM-free villages and the Family Violence bill are tools suitable to convince people even from the distance. More and more people start to make up their own mind, and when they have not yet, they are at least used to follow the example and to obey the authorities – facts that can be used to pave the way for the acceptance of new values.