WADI’s ground-breaking campaign against FGM: interview

Photo: Hivos

By Klaartje Laan, Hivos

Falah Moradhkin is WADI’s project coordinator in Iraq. He was one of the few who survived a poison gas attack by Saddam Hussein in Halabja, Iraqi Kurdistan, in 1988. Now part of WADI, a German-Iraqi NGO working in the region since 1993, he fights against other such crimes against humanity. His colleague Suad Abdul Rahman leads the women's programme, with which Hivos has worked closely for years.

Since WADI helped open the first women’s safe house in Iraqi Kurdistan in 1999, its local staff have focused on empowering and assisting women and invested much time and effort in the fight against female circumcision (also referred to as female genital mutilation, or FGM). This was no easy task, according to Falah: "Even my friends and acquaintances zapped away when I was on television. They found it embarrassing to hear me – a man – discuss such an intimate subject as FGM!" Initially, WADI emphasised the medical angle of the story by having doctors talk about the health risks of FGM. Then they had well-known clerics explain that this practice is not obligatory for Muslims. WADI also asked local people to do considerable research among midwives in remote areas, as well as at schools and universities, which gave them a better picture of the problem. Their approach, the groundbreaking research on how widespread FGM was (also in Kirkuk Governorate), and the focus on the medical side of the story brought much local media attention to the issue, making FGM a topic of general discussion.

Proof that it can work

Suad says it took WADI ten years to get from when they cautiously initiated the debate to the results they have achieved today. "FGM in Kurdistan is now prohibited by law, but it’s high time that we really eradicate the practice. We also want to convince more countries in the region to prohibit FGM. We’ve found a good formula to address the issue and have proof that it can work. In the near future, WADI also wants to focus more broadly on women's rights. We want to empower women and ensure that the law against domestic violence - which WADI also worked on - is really put into practice."

Making connections

Over the last ten years, WADI has gained the confidence of the people. While still a relatively small organisation, it is nonetheless very well-known among all sections of the Iraqi population. Falah: "It is very important to us that we remain politically independent so we can be an interlocutor for everyone. We work on many different issues and have partners who inform us about local conditions and talk to people about them for us. We can then connect these partners with each other."

Target your audience

WADI was the first organisation in the region to offer information on FGM online in Arabic and Kurdish (the translator was shocked). Now they also provide information on sex education. WADI developed their folders, videos and movies for different target groups. For example, a flyer about the relationship between Islam and female circumcision for clerics, a sex education video for female students,  or courses about domestic violence for social workers.

Two films, ‘Handful of Ash’ and ‘Khatana’, made by Nabaz Ahmed and Shara Amin and supported by Hivos and WADI, have played a central role in the campaign to stop FGM. The UK’s Guardian newspaper, in cooperation with the BBC, in turn made a documentary about the filmmakers and their work.

"Chinese virginity"

Recently, WADI employees have received training in discussing sexuality and giving sex education. Suad laughs: "Although I had already read up on the subject, there was still a lot a lot to learn. On the one hand we fight practices like female circumcision and virginity examinations by demonstrating that they are unnecessary and can be life threatening. On the other hand, we give women and girls tips and information on how to deal with traditions such as female circumcision and the habit of showing a bloody sheet as proof of virginity after the wedding night. Have you ever heard of Chinese virginity? These are small bags of blood a woman can insert on the wedding night that guarantee she’ll ‘bleed’. This is very reassuring for brides because even if you're a virgin, you may not bleed. We also teach women how to deal with virginity examinations in the state hospitals.

Loaded issues

WADI’s campaign against FGM was and is very successful. As part of the Hivos-supported ‘Stop FGM Middle East’ campaign, they are now taking their success stories to other countries where, for example, they want to create FGM free zones or where they want to talk about how polygamy is no longer the norm in Kurdish Turkey. Suad explains, “We give examples, we exchange information, but as in Kurdistan, it takes lots of time. There needs to be a civil society - organisations we can work with, institutions we can make agreements with. In non-Kurdish Iraq, it is only recently that we see civil society emerging. The NGOs there are still working on emergency aid, whereas we provide much more specialised and specific assistance in the field of FGM prevention or legal aid. On top of that, people have to trust you, especially when it comes to issues that are very loaded."

When asked about what Hivos has done for WADI, both Falah and Suad agree: "Of course we needed funding, but the support Hivos provides for us to lobby and access the media has also been very helpful. In the Netherlands, we’ve had talks facilitated by Hivos with European and international policymakers, which have brought necessary international attention to our agenda."