“Before being circumcised, both of my grandmothers always used to say that nobody should eat the food I prepare or touch because it is haram (forbidden).”
“One day my grandmother gathered all my girl cousins. I was so scared and tried to run away, but they caught me. An old lady circumcised us all using the same razor blade.”
“I remained suffering in privacy and secret and felt ashamed to talk about my pain to anybody.”
The above are quotations from three women about their personal experiences of female genital mutilation (FGM). FGM is among the harmful practices that are deeply embedded in the culture and traditions of many societies, including the Iraqi Kurdistan Region.
Every society has particular cultural traditions that reflect values and beliefs maintained by members of the community. Many traditions are beneficial and promote social cohesion and unity, whereas others are harmful and can erode the physical and psychological health and integrity of individuals. Girls and women are the primary victims of these harmful traditional practices.
The harmful traditional practices may be so rooted in the culture, constituting such an integral part of the socio-cultural fabric, that it seems impossible to stop them. Efforts to modify or abandon these practices might elicit doubt or opposition from the communities, especially when these efforts originate from outside the community. Asking an individual or group of people to adopt a new or an unusual practice will produce anxiety and resistance before the practice is accepted. The greatest resistance comes from the people who act as tradition-keepers: community leaders, faith-based leaders, and familial elders.
FGM, which is the excision of part or all of the female genitalia for non-medical reasons, is frequently practiced to curb the sexual desire of girls and protect their “sexual honor” before marriage. FGM is a powerful cultural tradition, and like other harmful traditional practices, attempts to stop FGM are not easy. One of the hardest aspects of campaigning against FGM has been the silence surrounding it: it was considered a taboo for a long time, and was therefore hardly ever discussed in public.
Some efforts have been made to combat FGM: many countries have outlawed FGM, women’s groups and human rights activists have campaigned against FGM, and governments, NGOs and communities have conducted public education campaigns. However, studies evaluating the effectiveness of such interventions are rare and face many methodological limitations.
It is hard to determine the effectiveness of legislations and policies in changing social attitudes. Although laws signal a country’s disapproval of FGM, and send a message to the society that the practice is not acceptable, their deterrent effect has not been confirmed. In most settings that outlaw FGM, people who break the law are rarely prosecuted as the practice remains confined within the family, and the victim, as a child, is unable to raise a complaint.
In our research under The Enhancing Life Project, a lack of awareness among the people about the existing legislations banning FGM came to light. This lack of awareness was even evident among the health professionals, who are usually better educated than the rest of women in a community, and who directly interact with the victims of FGM.
In many instances, women lack awareness of FGM and the associated adverse health consequences, so a potentially effective way to combat FGM is community education and awareness. Educational interventions that stress the negative aspects of FGM and that contradict incorrect knowledge can trigger changes in beliefs. Most of these educational interventions are made through mass media. Mass media interventions have been successful in some other areas of changing harmful cultural norms and attitudes—however, mass media's role in combating FGM is questionable, since the practice is primarily concentrated in rural areas and among poorly-educated people that lack access to mass media.
Some specific community strategies, such as joint declarations in which villages pledge not to mutilate their daughters, have been successful. However, enormous efforts are needed to cover all the areas and communities.
Though no clear basis for FGM exists in religious scripts, communities commonly believe that the practice is religiously prescribed and has clerical support. Religious leaders take varying positions on the subject of FGM, with some promoting it and others considering it irrelevant to religion. Cultural traditions can influence religious leaders at the community level, which might lead them to link FGM to their religion.
During our research work, many religious leaders refused to talk about FGM. Some were even supportive of the continuation of the practice, or suggested leaving it up to the family to decide on it. It is vital for religious leaders, particularly those at the community level, to speak out about FGM and collaborate with other stakeholders to address this harmful practice. If they do, they can play a substantial role in delinking FGM from religion.
Behavioral change is a complicated process. However, at some point, efforts become necessary to start to make the change happen. A top-down approach is a poor practice for behavioral change, as attempts to change harmful traditions are particularly effective when they originate in the community that practices them. Therefore, strategies to ban FGM need to employ a bottom-up approach through engaging and educating the community members, particularly the familial elders, the religious leaders, and the civil society organizations.
Culture is not static, but is rather in constant flux, going through adaptation and reform. People will change a harmful behavior when they realize its risks and understand that it is possible to abandon it without compromising the essential aspects of their culture. In our research with The Enhancing Life Project, we are trying to identify the aspiration potentials of the Kurdish community to combat FGM. We are also looking into the possibility of engaging the essential parts of the community in order to move the Kurdish community into the future through ending this harmful practice.
Read a Q&A with Dr. Shabila here.
Image credit: Florian Neuhof