Abandoning female genital mutilation, one village at a time

Kurdistan Resul leads a discussion about FGM with women in Murtka. She leads separate discussion groups for men and women. © UNICEF/Iraq/2016/Mackenzie

MURTKA, Iraq, 26 January 2016 — They remembered the day they were cut as if it was yesterday. Most said it happened around the age of five or six. To them, it’s the day they lost their trust in the person who brought them into this world — their mothers.

“We felt like our mothers betrayed us, that our mothers did not love us anymore.”

On an early Tuesday morning in January a group of women sat together in a mosque in Murtka village in Iraq’s Kurdistan region, to attend a discussion about female genital mutilation (FGM).

At first, they showed no signs of interest in participating in the talks. They were in a hurry to go back home to prepare lunch for their families and they were not comfortable with such a sensitive topic.

Kurdistan Resul, 31, a social worker with WADI, an NGO partner of UNICEF, has worked on preventing FGM in the Kurdistan region of Iraq for four years. She started the discussion with small talk, asking the women about their daily lives. After that, she asked them if mutilation was still a norm in the village.

Rates of FGM in Iraq are concentrated in Erbil and Sulaymaniyah Governorates in the Kurdistan region. Source: http://www.childinfo.org/files/FGCM_Lo_res.pdf

As time went on, the women started opening up. Some confessed that their experience with FGM was painful.

Communities practice FGM in the belief that it will ensure a girl’s proper marriage, chastity, or family honour.

Men in Murtka watch a clip about the health implications of FGM. © UNICEF/Iraq/2016/Mackenzie

“Female genital mutilation or cutting can jeopardize healthy child birth, cause friction in marital relationships, and endanger the reproductive health of women and girls. This is the reason why dialogues and engagement with the community are important — to raise awareness of how this practice harms girls,” says Mary Mendez, a Communication for Development Specialist with UNICEF.

Aysha, 29, is one of very few women in Murtka village who has not undergone FGM. She was five years old when she was told that she would be cut. “I was very scared so I ran away. I am happy that I didn’t let them cut me.”

Aysha has two other sisters who have been cut. They are, like Aysha, against the practice. They don’t want their daughters to experience the same pain they’ve faced.

Ms. Resul visits villages and rural areas four days each week. She engages with communities about FGM and disseminates material that provides information about the practice from a religious perspective about the health-related consequences, and about the law. FGM has been illegal in the Kurdistan region of Iraq since 2011. She helps villagers out with their daily lives until she builds a relationship with them and gains their trust and acceptance. Sometimes it takes months.

The mayor (third from right) and residents of Halajay Gawra walk along the main road. © UNICEF/Iraq/2016/Mackenzie

It took one month of hard work for the village of Halajay Gawra to abandon FGM. During her visits, Ms. Resul discovered that people in this village listened to their mayor, so she and her colleagues focused their energy on discussions with him. After days of trying to convince the mayor, he gathered the people of the village and announced that there would not be any more FGM from that day on — and the villagers listened.

Ghazal Rahman, the village midwife, estimated that she had carried out FGM for more than 20 years, cutting more than 2,000 girls from her village and the surrounding areas. After the mayor’s announcement, she changed her mind about the practice.

“I was told about the negative effects of cutting, so I stopped.”

The villagers decided to bury the cutting materials that the midwife used and to build a playground over the spot where the materials are buried. They held a ceremony and danced around the playground as a symbol of peace. The village is now one in the Kurdistan region that, with UNICEF support, has been designated “FGM-free.”

Children play on the playground in Halajay Gawra. © UNICEF/Iraq/2016/Mackenzie

With a generous contribution from the government of Italy, Ms. Resul and her team continue to work with communities to eliminate FGM in Iraq.

UNICEF also supports research about the practice. In 2014, UNICEF and partners conducted the first-ever Knowledge, Attitude and Perceptions survey on the root causes of FGM in the Kurdistan region and convened a conference to share vital information and recommendations to fully eliminate the practice.

Back at the mosque in Murtka the discussion group was making progress — one of the participants told Ms. Resul that she’s changed her mind about the practice.

“I have been thinking about cutting my 11 year old daughter for several weeks,” said Hasiba, 43.

“I was going to take her to a midwife in the neighboring village tomorrow, but you just convinced me not to do so. I will not do that to my daughter.”

Ms. Resul praised Hasiba’s decision, and vowed to continue her work.

“Women like Hasiba are the reason we do this. If we can help one woman change her mind and not harm her daughter, then we feel like we have done our job.”

Ala Abdullah is a Consultant with UNICEF in Iraq.

Direct donations to UNICEF Iraq: http://support.unicef.org/campaign/donate-children-iraq