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(Beirut) - A Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) law that bans female genital mutilation (FGM) is a crucial step in eradicating the practice, Human Rights Watch said today. The Family Violence Bill, approved by the Kurdistan parliament on June 21, 2011, includes several provisions criminalizing the practice, recognized internationally as a form of violence against women. Several studies by the government and non-governmental organizations estimate that the prevalence of FGM among girls and women in Kurdistan is at least 40 percent.

"By passing this law, the Kurdistan regional government has shown its resolve to end female genital mutilation and to protect the rights of women and girls," said Nadya Khalife, Middle East women's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. "But the government needs a long-term strategy to deal with this harmful practice because criminalizing it is not enough."

The Family Violence Bill also criminalizes forced and child marriages, verbal, physical, and psychological abuse of girls and women, child abuse, and child labor. The bill has to be ratified by the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government.

The new law provides for establishing special courts for family violence cases and makes it easier for alleged victims to press charges. It also establishes mechanisms for police and courts to issue and enforce restraining orders to protect victims of domestic abuse. The bill also outlines penalties, including prison sentences, for these crimes.

Article six of the law includes four provisions about female genital mutilation, criminalizing the practice and penalizing anyone, including medical professionals and midwives, who "instigate, assist, or carry out" the procedure. Criminal penalties include prison terms ranging from six months to three years, in addition to fines of up to 10 million dinars ($8,500).

In June 2010, Human Rights Watch issued a report, "They Took Me and Told Me Nothing: Female Genital Mutilation in Iraqi Kurdistan," which urged the Kurdistan Regional Government and the Kurdistan parliament to take a series of steps to end the practice, including enacting laws banning it.  

The report noted while it was important to pass legislation with appropriate penalties for people who perform the procedure, the government should also provide appropriate services for victims, including  health care and social and psychological support. The report urged the government to work with community midwives, who most often do the cutting, and to undertake public awareness campaigns against the practice. Human Rights Watch also called on the regional government to develop a comprehensive legal and policy framework with relevant ministries and civil society organizations aimed at eradicating the practice.

Human Rights Watch's report describes the experiences of young girls and women who undergo genital mutilation and the terrible toll it has on their physical and mental health. The report includes interviews with girls and women who referred to the practice as "sunnah," a non-obligatory act to strengthen one's religion. Human Rights Watch found that women are confused about whether the practice is a religious obligation.

On July 6, 2010, The High Committee for Issuing Fatwas at the Kurdistan Islamic Scholars Union, the highest Muslim religious authority in Iraqi Kurdistan on religious pronouncements and rulings, issued a fatwa, or religious edict, shortly after the release of Human Rights Watch's report. The fatwa stated that female genital mutilation predates Islam and is not required by it. The fatwa did not explicitly ban the practice but encouraged parents not to have the procedure performed on their daughters because of the negative health consequences.

In 2010, the Association for Crisis Assistance and Development Co-operation (WADI), a German-Iraqi human rights nongovernmental organization, published a statistical study on the prevalence of the practice in Arbil, Sulaimaniya, and the Germian/Kirkuk region. It found that out of the 1,408 girls and women age 14 and over it interviewed, 72.7 percent had undergone the practice. For the 12 to 24 age group, the prevalence was slightly over 40 percent.

Shortly after the Human Rights Watch report was issued, the Kurdistan Health Ministry surveyed 5,000 women and girls and found that 41 percent had undergone the procedure, and that the practice is prevalent in some regions than others in Kurdistan. The ministry found, for example, that the rate was higher in Sulaimaniya than in Arbil.

Female genital mutilation violates the rights of women to life, health and bodily integrity, non-discrimination and the right not to be subjected to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. In addition, since the practice predominantly affects girls under 18, it also violates children's rights to health, life, physical integrity, and non-discrimination.

"Once the ban is in effect, government agencies should widely disseminate information on the new law making sure it reaches women and girls at risk of FGM," Khalife said. "Everyone should now know that the mutilation of girls is prohibited."

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