The barbaric practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) has dropped sharply in parts of Iraq. A report conducted by the Heartland Alliance (not to be mistaken for the Heartland Institute, a climate change denial think tank) gives hope that FGM might be eliminated within one generation in the Kurdish areas.

Barbarism in the 21st century

Image credits: David Staveley

You might not be aware, but a shocking 200 million women alive today have undergone some form of genital mutilation. The practice involves the ritual removal of some or all of the external female genitalia. Just so you can get an idea how bad this is, various procedures include removal of the clitoral hood and clitoral glans; removal of the inner labia; and removal of the inner and outer labia and closure of the vulva. In this last procedure (known as infibulation), a small hole is left for the passage of urine and menstrual fluid; the vagina is opened for intercourse and opened further for childbirth.

Despite this evident suffering and degradation, it’s actually women who organize most of the FGM. Anthropologist Rose Oldfield Hayes wrote in 1975 that educated Sudanese men who did not want their daughters to be infibulated (preferring clitoridectomy) would find the girls had been sewn up after the grandmothers arranged a visit to relatives. There is a lot of social pressure, sometimes coupled with religious pressure as well. Combine this with a lack of access to information and proper medical care, and you end up with this. There are no medical benefits to FGM but there are a lot of negative consequences, including constant pain, infections, regular bleeding, problems passing urine, depression, and problems during childbirth.

But don’t think that FGM is only limited to underdeveloped countries. Although it’s a crime in the UK, 103,000 women and girls aged 15–49 are thought to be living with FGM in England and Wales. Some 25,000 victims are living in Germany, and a whopping 507,000 females are thought to have suffered the procedure in the United States. It was actually covered by the Blue Cross health insurance until 1977, under the belief that it “cures” female masturbation, hysteria, nymphomania and excess sexual desire, lesbianism, lack of female orgasm during traditional intercourse, and a number of other conditions considered abnormal or immoral at the time.

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Of course, many of these women come from Africa or the Middle East. This is why it’s so important to tackle the problem at its roots, and this is why this report is so significant.

Tackling genital mutilation

Malala is the youngest recipient of a Nobel Prize.

A survey conducted by US-based Heartland Alliance found that 45% of around 6,000 mothers in Iraq’s Kurdish region had undergone FGM. Meanwhile, only 11% of their daughters have done the same. That’s a fantastic decrease, and a very encouraging one.

“We’re very encouraged,” Hannah Wettig, coordinator of the Stop FGM Middle East campaign, said according to Reuters. “We’re quite certain that we can eradicate FGM in one generation if efforts continue,” she told Thomson Reuters Foundation on International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM.

Stop FGM Middle East is funded by German charity WADI and mostly works in the Kurdish area of northern Iraq. The report, which also received support from the Kurdistan Regional Government and UNICEF stated that most women who still undergo FGM quote religion as a main reason, although genital mutilation is never mentioned in the Qu’ran. Therefore, campaigners also called on religious leaders to step in and urge stopping this practice.

“They should be encouraged to include messages about ending (FGM) in their local communities in Friday prayers and sermons,” the authors of the report said. “Issuing a fatwa condemning the practice … is another powerful step religious leaders and religious-based political parties could take.”

The UN has declared FGM a human rights violation and UNICEF is actively working to combat it.

“It irreparably damages girls’ bodies, inflicting excruciating pain,” UNICEF director Anthony Lake and UN Population Fund director Babatunde Osotimehin said in a joint statement on Monday, marking International Day of Zero Tolerance for female genital mutilation.

“It causes extreme emotional trauma that can last a lifetime,” and increases the risk of deadly complications during pregnancy and childbirth, they noted.