Anchor Marco Werman speaks with Jessie Graham of Human Rights Watch about a report released today on the high rate of female genital mutilation in the Kurdish region of Iraq.
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MARCO WERMAN: I’m Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WBGH Boston. Human Rights Watch has found a disturbing trend in northern Iraq. In a report issued today, the rights group says a significant number of Kurdish women in the self-ruled region has undergone female genital mutilation. That’s the name given to a medically risky and emotionally painful procedure, often performed on very young girls. It involves the removal of the clitoris and sometimes other genital parts. Human Rights Watch is now calling on Kurdish authorities in northern Iraq to ban the practice. Jessie Graham is with Human Rights Watch; she’s also a former reporter for this program and in fact, did some reporting for us on female genital mutilation in northern Iraq. Jessie, how did Human Rights Watch come to the conclusion that so many women in the Kurdish region of Iraq have undergone FGM?
JESSIE GRAHAM: They interviewed women in villages in northern Iraq and actually have worked with an NGO that’s been doing work on this for many years that’s done some surveys and found that in some places it is almost every woman in a village will be subjected to this. The government itself has done some surveys and found numbers as high as 40% in one district and it’s pretty clear that this is a very common practice.
WERMAN: One of the disturbing conclusions of the Human Rights Watch report is that for many girls in Iraqi Kurdistan, FGM is an unavoidable procedure, and we’re talking often very young girls between the ages of three and twelve. Now you reported on FGM in northern Iraq for our program back in 2006. Is there a typical way that this occurs to a young girl? Does the mother take her to someone? Is a girl even warned beforehand what’s going to happen?
GRAHAM: No, the girls aren’t warned and the report is called “They Took Me and Told Me Nothing”, which I think is very telling. What this report does is it really does tell that story of how unexpected, surprising and really harrowing this experience is for these little girls. Sometimes it’s also adult women who are subjected to this. And in almost every case that we heard about, the women are taken to a relative’s house or someone, a midwife, comes to the house, they are held down by a female relative and the woman that performs the cutting is using a razor blade. There’s no anesthesia. They have to be very stoic because every woman in the community or many women in the community have gone through this procedure. And the understanding is that they have to go through it in order to get married, in order to serve food, in order to be a woman in the community.
WERMAN: Now you mentioned the adult women who undergo the procedure and the report from Human Rights Watch says that these women are pressured into this. Who is applying the pressure?
GRAHAM: Well that’s what’s really interesting about this and what makes it a difficult human rights issue, I think, in many way; it’s the women themselves. It’s the elders in the community, the elder women, it’s mothers, aunts, cousins. There is social pressure but there is also an idea that this is part of Islam because these are largely Islamic communities.
WERMAN: Well Iraq is mostly Muslim. How does the rate of FGM in northern Iraq compared to the rest of Iraq?
GRAHAM: It’s really interesting; we don’t have numbers for the rest of Iraq. And it does seem that this is something that is especially common among the Kurds of northern Iraq. Now what makes that interesting as well is that this is actually a regional government that was autonomous that has done a lot for women. They have women’s shelters. They see themselves as being very progressive on issues of domestic violence and even honor killings. In the north women don’t wear hijab as much. They appear to be very western, but this is something that the government hasn’t taken on in a systematic way.
WERMAN: So Human Rights Watch is calling on Kurdish leaders in northern Iraq to ban FGM. How likely is that to happen?
GRAHAM: There has been some movement towards banning FGM in Iraq over the last several years, but the idea is that a real ban, a legislative ban, would go a long way.
WERMAN: It would. Given who deeply ingrained, culturally this practice is, could a ban even be enforced?
GRAHAM: I don’t think we’re talking about rounding up women and midwives. I think we’re talking about the government taking a stand and saying look, this practice isn’t working for us anymore. It’s dangerous, it really interferes with the quality of women’s lives, it’s something that can have lasting health effects, both mentally and physically. So they need to come out against it and say this isn’t a religious practice, this isn’t a traditional practice that we need to hold onto.
WERMAN: Jessie Graham with Human Rights Watch and a former reporter for The World. Jessie nice to speak with you again. Thanks a lot.
GRAHAM: Thank you Marco.
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