1.     What type of FGM is commonly practiced in Iraqi Kurdistan?

Doctors in Iraqi Kurdistan have told Human Rights Watch that the most common type of FGM believed to be practiced there is partial or total removal of the clitoris and/or prepuce for non-medical reasons, also known as clitoridectomy. It is Type 1 in the World Health Organization's (WHO) classification of four types of FGM.  

The health care workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that Type II in the WHO classification, a more invasive procedure that includes the partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, performed with or without excision of the labia majora, is also performed on adult women in hospitals.

2.     What is the common terminology used for FGM?

In Iraqi Kurdistan, FGM is largely known as female circumcision, or in the Kurdish language as "xatena," which is also used to refer to the circumcision of boys.

In "They Took Me and Told Me Nothing: Female Genital Mutilation in Iraqi Kurdistan," Human Rights Watch mostly describes the practice as female genital mutilation because this term conveys the harms associated with the practice and identifies it as a violation of girls' and women's human rights. The report uses the terms "female circumcision" and "xatena" in quoting testimony or describing other information from our interviewees, as these are the words that girls, women, and others used in speaking to us to describe this practice.

3.     What is the prevalence of female genital mutilation in Iraqi Kurdistan?

The former Human Rights Ministry of Iraqi Kurdistan conducted a small survey of 521 girls and women in the Chamchamal district and found that 40.7 percent of girls and women between the ages of 11 and 24 said that they had experienced this practice.  

A larger survey by the Association for Crisis Assistance and Development Co-operation (WADI), a German-Iraqi human rights and women's rights organization, based on a sample of 1,408 women and girls in Arbil, Sulaimaniya and the area of Germian/New Kirkuk, found the prevalence of FGM among girls and women ages 14 to 19 to be 57 percent.

Both surveys suggest that FGM is widespread in Iraqi Kurdistan.

4.     Is FGM practiced elsewhere in Iraq?

There are Kurdish communities elsewhere in Iraq, outside the Kurdistan Autonomous Region (KAR), so FGM is likely to be practiced in these communities as well. FGM is also believed to exist among other, non-Kurdish groups in Iraq, but there are no data to confirm this.  

5.     At what age do girls typically undergo FGM?

The majority of girls subjected to FGM interviewed by Human Rights Watch in Iraqi Kurdistan in 2009 said that they underwent the procedure between the ages of 3 and 12.

Some adult women also told Human Rights Watch that they underwent this procedure either voluntarily or because they were coerced by family members and societal pressures.

6.     What are some reasons girls and women give for this practice?

In Iraqi Kurdistan, FGM is practiced for socio-cultural and religious reasons. Some girls and women interviewed by Human Rights Watch noted that FGM is a cultural tradition that is linked to Kurdish identity. Others mentioned that girls and women who had not undergone the procedure were considered unclean and not allowed to handle food and beverages. Still others referred to the practice as required by Islamic sunnah, an action that is carried out to strengthen one's religion, but is not obligatory.

7.     Do clerics or mullahs encourage FGM in Iraqi Kurdistan?

Evidence from our field research suggests that women and girls receive confusing and conflicting messages from clerics about FGM and whether it is a religious obligation. Human Rights Watch spoke to several girls and women who said that clerics in their villages encourage the practice, while some others said that they have been told by their religious leaders that the practice is harmful to their health and that the clerics do not encourage it. Clerics we interviewed told us that when any practice interpreted as sunnah endangers people's lives, it is the duty of the clerics to stop it.

8.     What does the medical community in Iraqi Kurdistan have to say about FGM?

The medical community in Iraqi Kurdistan does not have a unified or coherent stand on FGM. Health care professionals we spoke to had differing perspectives on and understandings of the consequences associated with the practice. Some did not think that it was a problem, while others were deeply concerned about the implications of FGM for women's and girls' health. While some felt it was their responsibility to help raise awareness about the dangers of FGM, others felt this went beyond their role.

9.     Do schools provide information on reproductive health to students that include an awareness-raising component on FGM?

Students in Iraqi Kurdistan receive little health information on reproductive and sexual health and none on FGM. Only a single page in the curriculum is dedicated to reproductive health.

Young girls interviewed by Human Rights Watch said there is no program of FGM awareness in their schools. They referred to FGM as a shameful subject that is not discussed in school or with their teachers or even among their peers. The girls said that their schools are co-educational, making it difficult to hold such sensitive conversations.

10.  What international obligations do the Iraqi government and the Kurdish Regional Government have relevant to FGM to protect girls and women?

FGM, characterized by WHO as a "harmful traditional practice," violates the rights of girls and women. The procedure which is medically unnecessary and irreversible, inflicts severe pain on young girls, has short-term and long-lasting health consequences on girls and women, and can be life-threatening.  

Iraq is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). All of these documents oblige states to protect women's and girls' rights to health, to be free from violence, to life and physical integrity, to non-discrimination, and to be free from cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, all of which are violated by FGM.

As an autonomously governed region, the KAR is directly managed by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), but is still overseen by the Iraqi government. The international treaties and conventions signed by Iraq are therefore binding on the three governorates under the responsibility of the KRG: Arbil, Sulaimaniya, and Dohuk. The KRG is accountable for any human rights violations, including FGM, which take place in the region it governs.

11.  Has the KRG made any effort to promote women's rights in Iraqi Kurdistan?

The KRG has taken a number of important steps to advance women's rights, particularly with regard to family violence. In 2002, it passed a law to abolish reduced penalties for the murder of a female family member by a male relative on grounds of family shame and dishonor. This law sets the Kurdistan region apart from many other countries in the Middle East and North Africa, where penal laws still permit mitigated sentences and exemptions for men who murder in the name of "honor."

In October 2008, the KRG established the Directorate for Combating Violence against Women in the Interior Ministry. The directorate's main offices are in Arbil, Sulaimaniya, and Dohuk, with smaller branch offices throughout Kurdish districts. The directorates conduct outreach, operate hotlines for women to report abuse, and investigate gender-based violence. Their investigative capacity is currently constrained, though, because staff lack adequate skills and training about gender-based violence and because of concerns over security, confidentiality, and counseling.

Combating FGM, which is a form of violence against women and children, should be a priority for the KRG.

12. What sorts of action is Human Rights Watch asking the Iraqi government and the Kurdish Regional Governments to take to address FGM?

Human Rights Watch is calling on the Iraqi government and the KRG to respect and fulfill their international obligations to protect the human rights of girls and women, particularly by taking steps to eradicate FGM, including developing an enabling policy and legal framework to address FGM, disseminating accurate information about FGM, and mobilizing support against FGM.

Human Rights Watch is calling on the KRG to take three immediate actions:

  • Urgently introduce a bill in the Kurdistan National Assembly (Parliament) to ban FGM for children and non-consenting adult women;
  • Carry out a region-wide awareness campaign about the harm caused by FGM that targets men, women, and children, health care professionals, religious leaders, and traditional midwives;
  • Develop a long-term strategy involving all these groups to eradicate the practice.

What can donor governments do to help the KRG combat FGM?

Donor governments should support the KRG in combating FGM. They should assist with long-term eradication efforts and provide ample support to government initiatives and civil society programs that aim to eradicate this harmful traditional practice.