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Foreign Affairs: Under the Knife

27.7.2015. By Christina Asquith

Grading Iraqi Kurdistan’s Progress Against Female Genital Mutilation

Last month, Nigeria became the most recent African country to formally ban female genital mutilation, a barbaric practice performed on 150 million girls across the world. The move was cheered around the globe, but the celebration was tinged with some reservation. Realistically, most recognize, a piece of paper issued in parliament isn’t enough to combat a deeply rooted tradition stretching back thousands of years. Indeed, although the law “is a major boost not only for Nigeria’s women, but for the nation as a whole,” Stella Mukasa of the International Center for Research on Women told me, “The question is: Will it make a practical difference?”

In just the last five years, six other countries—Guinea Bissau, Kenya, Somalia, Uganda, and Zambia—have passed legislation banning female genital mutilation. In other words, the practice is now illegal in almost all the countries where the United Nations suspects it occurs. Evidence suggests that anti-mutilation efforts are reducing cutting rates in many corners of the globe. But worldwide, reports of women suffering from the practice are still rampant.

In fact, the United Nations recently estimated that at least 15 million more girls will be mutilated by 2030 worldwide. This figure includes newly discovered cases in remote regions of Iran and Indonesia, as well as in countries in which female genital mutilation is now illegal. Growing evidence of mutilation also exists in the West. A 2015 U.S. Center for Disease Control report noted that half a million girls—513,000—in the United States had either already been cut or were at risk. That number is up from 168,000 in 1997.

And the United Kingdom is rushing through laws this summer to prevent “holiday cutting,” a practice in which tens of thousands of immigrant girls are flown back to their countries of origin to be mutilated. The law would require teachers and health workers to report female genital mutilation, and would empower the police to prevent young girls from traveling to Africa if they believe they will be cut there.


Anti-female genital mutilation activists devote considerable effort to passing laws against this deplorable practice. So what practical difference does a law make against a practice that is so underground, intimate, and secretive that even family members and close friends often don’t know it has occurred?

A great case study comes from the Kurdish region of Northern Iraq, which is currently considered one of the world leaders in female genital mutilation eradication. Aid organizations there first discovered that the practice was occurring in 2003 as workers fanned out to the countryside in anticipation of a refugee crisis following the U.S. invasion and toppling of Saddam Hussein. The refugees never came, but aid workers got an earful about what was happening to girls in the village.

Eight years later, in 2011, the Kurdish regional government passed law banning female genital mutilation. It was the result of an arduous, around the clock, and controversial campaign to push the politicians into action, led by WADI, a small Iraqi–German NGO. Along the way, activists faced death threats and had their personal reputations smeared. But they were ecstatic when they finally emerged victorious.

Yet today, four years after the law was passed, Kurdistan has yet to see the first person fined or jailed in connection with practicing female genital mutilation. “We fought so hard for the law, but as soon as it was passed, we realized that the fight had only begun,” Arvid Vormann, a program manager at WADI told me.

Even so, in some villages in the Kurdish region, mutilation is down by more than 40 percent, and nearly a dozen villages have officially adopted a label of “FGM-free” for several years now, a practice first started in Africa. Aid workers thus argue that the symbolism of the legislative victory was worth the effort, even if it is now clear that it was mostly the campaign itself—and not the legislation—that moved the needle.

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