Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A Woman's Right to Health Violated in Kurdistan

Iraqi Kurdistan has gained a reputation as an emerging democracy in the Middle East, but a major human rights violation persists without little action from the government: the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM). A new report by Human Rights Watch details the practice, which is defined by the World Health Organization as "the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia for non-medical reasons." According to a study by the Iraqi NGO WADI, 72 percent of Kurdish women over the age of fourteen have been circumcised, most of them when they were between 3 and 12 years old.

Fear and pain is what Kurdish women emphasized about their experiences with FGM. Held down by their female relatives, and cut without their consent, women are given no anesthetic and the same razor blade is used for multiple procedures. The cutting can cause heavy bleeding and infection and have lifelong health consequences that include pain, infertility, and the loss of sexual pleasure. In short, "FGM violates women's and children's rights, including their rights to life, health, and bodily integrity," said lead researcher Nadya Khalife.

FGM is defended as linking Kurds to their cultural identity. While many senior Islamic clerics have publicly opposed it, many women believe that it is spiritually beneficial. Mothers, aunts, and other female relatives hope it will allow their daughters to make good marriages.

The government of Kurdistan has been progressive in addressing many forms of violence against women, but has yet to ban FGM. A draft law banning FGM was introduced in Parliament in 2008 only to be abandoned because the occurrence of FGM was deemed rare.

HRW proposes a comprehensive approach to eradicating FGM in Iraqi Kurdistan, including both policy measures and awareness-raising efforts. The Kurdistan Regional Government must take the lead by passing strong legislation to ban the procedure, provide appropriate penalties for those responsible, and support women who have been hurt by it.

While a ban is important, it must be supplemented by public health campaigns. To criminalize the procedure is to risk sending it underground, making it even more dangerous. Kurdish authorities must thus address the underlying factors that make women choose the procedure for their daughters, especially the lack of information on its harmful effects. Religious and community leaders must set an example and affirm their commitments to ending FGM.

So far, the Kurdish authorities’ reaction to the report has been to downplay the problem of FGM. During their research, WADI was even told by a minister that their "work was ruining the reputation of Kurdistan." Areyan Rauf, a governmental human rights officer, stated that "Female circumcision isn't such a pressing matter for us because there are only one or two cases that we discover a year." Similarly, Mariwan Naqshbandi, spokesman for the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs, suggested that the study was based on rumors. "Circumcision exists as an isolated occurrence, rather than as a phenomenon in Kurdistan," he said.

If the Kurdish government is serious about its commitment to human rights and women’s rights, it must take concrete steps to address the high incidence of FGM and its negative consequences for women. Kurdish women and children have a right to health and autonomy over their bodies, and those rights are being violated by the persistence of female genital mutilation.

This post was written by Anna Mysliwiec.

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