By NAMO ABDULLA and TIMOTHY WILLIAMS - The New York Times
SULAIMANIYA, Iraq — Human Rights Watch urged Kurdistan’s government on Wednesday to ban genital cutting of women and girls, a practice the organization said is widespread and dangerous there, but which they said Kurdish officials had failed to move aggressively to stop.
Human Rights Watch, an advocacy organization based in New York, interviewed 31 girls and women last year and combined its findings with recent surveys by other organizations that found that at least 40 percent of girls and women in Iraq’s Kurdistan region had undergone the procedure, which typically involves cutting off external genitalia with a dirty razor blade.
One of the studies, of about 1,400 girls and women interviewed during 2007 and 2008, found that almost 73 percent of women 14 years and older said that at least a portion of their genitals had been removed.
The report criticized Kurdish lawmakers for failing to approve legislation to ban the practice, saying attempts in the past had fallen short because Kurdistan had not made the issue a priority.
“Although it has not been completely inactive, its efforts have been piecemeal, low key and poorly sustained,” the report said of the Kurdish government.
During its interviews with Kurdish officials, Human Rights Watch said the government had played down the frequency of the practice, in part because of concerns about the damage the study might have on the international reputation of Kurdistan, which is generally regarded as being more Western and less socially conservative than much of the Middle East.
Human Rights Watch “was told that the rates of female genital mutilation were not significant and that organizations working to combat this practice had other ‘interests,’ such as tarnishing the reputation of Kurdistan,” the report said.
The Kurdish government does not collect its own data on genital cutting.
Mariwan Naqshbandi, a spokesman for Kurdistan’s Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs, dismissed the study, saying that it had distorted reality and that Kurdistan had “issues far more important” to confront.
“The report is extremely exaggerated,” he said. “It is so unfair. It relied solely on some local reports. It relied on rumors.”
He added: “Circumcision exists as an isolated occurrence, rather than as a phenomenon in Kurdistan. It only exists in certain places.”
Human Rights Watch said Kurdish girls and women described genital cutting as being physically painful and psychologically scarring.
“Girls undergoing the procedure are forcefully held down, their legs pried apart, and part of their genitalia cut off with a razor blade,” the report said. “Often the same blade is used to cut several girls. No anesthesia is applied beforehand and if anything at all is applied to the open wound afterwards, it is water, herbs, cooking oil or ashes.”
In addition to wounds caused to women, risks include an increase in the rate of stillbirths and in the occurrence of babies with low birth weight, the report said.
It is not clear how common genital cutting is in the rest of Iraq, because it has not been the subject of a comprehensive study.