At seven, Dania, (not real name) underwent female genital mutilation in her home town, Sulaymaniyah, in northern Iraq. Explaining how it all began, she said, ‘’my mother told me one morning, come with me, we need to go to the bakery. That day, I experienced fear, deception and excruciating pain. I was only seven.’’
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is recognized internationally as a gross violation of the human rights of girls and women, which reflects deep-rooted inequalities between the sexes and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women and girls.
The practice comprises all procedures that involve altering or injuring the female genitalia for non-medical reasons. Current estimations indicate that over 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone some form of FGM, while over 68 million girls aged zero -14 years are at a risk of being subjected to FGM by 2030.
Unlike other years of the Joint Programme implementation, the declaration of COVID-19 as a global pandemic in March 2020 presented unprecedented challenges in the movement for the elimination of FGM.
The social and economic impact of the pandemic has left the world grappling to find a balance between life before COVID-19 and the current state of affairs. Disease outbreaks affect women and men differently, and pandemics make existing inequalities for women and girls worse, and the COVID-19 pandemic has not been an exception.
The pandemic has compounded existing gender inequalities, norms and unequal power relations, leaving girls and women with disproportionate social, economic, and health risks, including FGM. In 2020, the pandemic presented a dual set of challenges: a public health emergency resulting from the direct consequences of the virus, and a socio-economic crisis caused by confinement measures put in place to prevent the spread of the disease.
Most governments prioritised public health response and introduced containment measures that increased girls’ and women’s FGM risk. Prevention and response services for FGM were either unavailable or designated nonessential; school closures disrupted the vital protective role schools play; and families faced a loss of income and livelihoods, which in some contexts, resulted in the adoption of negative coping mechanisms.
Such mechanisms included practising FGM on girls to increase their marriageability or performing the practice for financial gains as ways to ease economic pressure on the household. Despite these challenges, in 2020, the Joint Programme adapted its interventions to respond to the crisis, including ensuring the integration of FGM in humanitarian and post-crisis response plans. In the year, the global community also launched a Decade of Action to deliver the SDGs by 2030, with reaffirmations on addressing inequalities and “leaving no one behind” towards the achievement of the SDGs by the set deadline.
This Performance Report, therefore, presents the progress made thus far in the implementation of the Joint Programme. The report focuses on the Joint Programme experiences recorded in preventing, mitigating and responding to the increased risk of FGM during the pandemic. It also presents achievements in 2020, which are key in setting the baseline for 2021 – the final year of Phase III of the Joint Programme.
Unlike other years, the 2020 annual report is presented in a sequenced format, featuring six sub-reports.
Continuing, Dania said, “when we arrived at the bakery, my mom took me to the back room where there was an old stove. I saw an old woman holding razor blades. I remember that old woman and my mom holding me down. Words cannot express the pain and confusion I felt. It took a few seconds and I saw blood coming down my thighs. The woman then put coal on my genitalia.”
Dania is now 53 years old. But, she says, “I remember everything… The smell, the pain, the screams and the blood coming down on my thighs.”
FGM is any procedure that alters or injures the female genitalia for non-medical reasons, and it is recognized internationally as a violation of human rights. It can cause lasting physical and psychological consequences, including painful menstruation, infertility, infections and even, in some cases, death.
It takes place in countries and communities around the world, including the Kurdistan region. Strong advocacy in recent years has made a difference, however. Estimates from 2015 showed that, among the mothers surveyed, 44.8 per cent reported undergoing the practice themselves, compared to 10.7 per cent of their daughters under age 14, being cut, with the average age of cutting being five years old.
Still, the practice continues to affect the health and lives of too many girls. In Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, it is deeply rooted in cultural beliefs and myths. For instance, many view cutting as essential to protecting the honour of their daughters, while others consider it a prerequisite for eventual marriage.
Spreading awareness to change behaviours
United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) is helping end FGM in region through campaigns that raise awareness of the adverse effects of the practice. These efforts engage the media, religious leaders and other influencers to change attitudes and perceptions among the local communities. It is also reaching out to parents, teachers, doctors and midwives to spread out behavioural change messages.
These campaigns are being carried out in collaboration with the Kurdistan High Council for Women’s Affairs, and with support from the European Regional Development and Protection Programme for Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.
“To date, I don’t understand why I had to go through this experience”, said Dania. “My mother never justified her actions or felt the need to guide me through this painful process.”
She has since become a vocal advocate for ending all harmful practices. In this work, she not only calls for the end of these practices but also calls attention to the rights of girls. It is not only the act of cutting that must change, she says, but the gender biases that drive it.
“Circumcision is not a religious act, nor a medical one. It is just a baseless cultural practice that aims at shaming women from a young age based on their sex. I will never do this to my daughter”, said Dania. “By performing genital mutilation and other harmful practices, we are robbing our daughters of their sexual and reproductive rights.”