SULAIMANIYAH, Kurdistan region 'Iraq', 6
January 2005, — A
ground-breaking survey done by a German NGO of 40
villages in the rural Germian region of
Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq has revealed that
nearly 60 percent of the area's women have undergone
circumcision (also known as female genital
Of 1,544 women and girls aged over 10 interviewed by
members of WADI's locally-based mobile medical team,
907 said they had undergone the operation, the
so-called "Sunna" circumcision, which involves the
partial excision of the clitoris; 637 said they had
"We knew Germian was one of the areas most affected
by the practice," WADI Director Thomas von der
Osten-Sacken told IRIN in Sulaymaniyah. "But these
results were a real shock."
Although banned in the West, the practice of FGM is
common in other Muslim countries in Asia and the
Middle East, and in Africa in particular, where
there are regular calls for it to be stopped. Health
experts say it can cause major problems, including
various forms of scarring and infertility in some
The procedure, when performed without any
anaesthetic, can lead to death through shock or
excessive bleeding. The failure to use sterilised
medical instruments can lead to infections and the
spread of diseases such as HIV/AIDS.
Girls who have not been circumcised are considered
"unclean" in many of the cultures where practised,
and are often treated as sex workers.
Long known to exist in Iraqi Kurdistan, particularly
in certain rural areas of the southern Sulaymaniyah
governorate, FGM has been the object of more than a
decade of campaigning by local women's
organisations, as well as NGOs such as WADI.
In the total absence of statistics, though,
estimates of the prevalence of the practice varied
wildly. Some claimed as many as 40 percent of all
women in Sulaymaniyah governorate were circumcised.
Others suggest that it was around 10 percent.
WADI's small study will not be enough to put an end
to that controversy. But it offers the first solid
evidence that FGM is, at least locally, a major
problem in Iraq.
The NGO is now planning a second, much larger survey
of this practicse, which could turn out to be a
"You can't just go into a village and ask women if
they've been circumcised," WADI mobile team doctor
Suheila Hidayat Qadir told IRIN in Sarqalla, a small
town in Kifri sub-district. "This is a practice that
goes on in secret. Nobody talks openly about it."
In the 40 Germian villages, the surveying itself
took less than two months, in October and November
2004. But members of WADI's team had been visiting
locals for over a year and are known to them by
providing medicine to the sick and health advice to
women and children.
"These people are very poor; what they want most is
money, not advice," said team leader Assi Frood
Aziz. "They only began to trust us when they saw we
actually intended to carry on helping them."
Dr Qadir and her colleagues include information
about FGM among the health advice they gave
villagers. They remind villagers of the dangers of
infection immediately following the operation along
with other serious health issues.
They also point out that circumcising a girl reduces
her chances of experiencing a healthy and fulfilling
sex life when older.
Trust or no trust, though, they have found
persuading the people of Germian to give up the
practice difficult for the simple reason that many
are convinced it is a religious Islamic obligation,
although this has been debated.
As one campaigner against FGM in Pizhdar, an eastern
district of Iraqi Kurdistan, put it: "When you ask
villagers why they circumcise their daughters, they
tell you that if they don't, even the water she
carries back from the well will be 'haram'
No senior Sunni cleric has ever outright condemned
female circumcision. In Iraqi Kurdistan, however,
the fight to end the practice was made easier in
2001 when liberal clerics in Sulaymaniyah agreed to
issue a "fatwa" (religious order) against it.
Members of WADI's Germian team say that clerics in
the region are far more cooperative than in the
past. But they add that the remoteness and
backwardness of many of the villages has slowed the
speed with which attitudes change.
"The Sulaymaniyah clerics have talked on TV several
times about female circumcision," said Aziz. "But
few of these villages have electricity, let alone
radios or televisions. How are villagers supposed to
hear what they say?"
He and other medical team members have taken to
carrying copies of the fatwa around villages to show
inhabitants. In the future, he says, they may swap
that for a video and television.
"The ideal would be to interview one of the senior
clerics in Sulaymaniyah about circumcision, and
screen the results in each of the villages," he
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