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kurdish globe | 17.04.2011. original text

Campaign to end the pain

By Sazan Mandalawi

A health awareness campaign becomes a stepping stone to a FGM-free generation

The day for the mobile team from START Social Development Organization begins before sunrise in Erbil in their Bakhtiary office, packing plastic envelopes with awareness material. With a gynecologist and a religious leader (mullah) to who also join the group. The mission is to spread awareness on female genital mutilation and breast cancer.

"The sessions begin with an introduction about the campaign, followed by a presentation conducted by the gynecologists who speaks about women's health with a focus on self-examination for breast cancer and FGM from a medical perspective," explains START Director Safin Ali.

The program with each group of women also includes a screening of a short film called Trauma that depicts insights into the issue of FGM and its consequences between a husband and a wife. This is followed by a speech from a mullah.

"The Quran doesn't say to circumcise your daughters!" exclaims Mullah Abdullah Sherkawayee to approximately 80 students and a number of female staff in the Kani Baste high school in the Qasre sub district of Choman.

He moves on to prove that the sayings of Prophet Mohammad (Hadiths) in regards to FGM come from unreliable sources who have narrated the Hadiths. "In Islamic Shariah, if something has more disadvantages than advantages, that is, it is detrimental, then that practice should be sinful." Through his talk, with proof from Quranic verses, Mullah Sherkawayee reaffirms, based on science, medicine and social values, that FGM is a practice that should be forbidden.

Throughout his talk to the females in the hall, he names renowned Muslim scholars -- who are still living -- who argue FGM should not be practiced.

The mullah's talk to the females is only a small part of a larger campaign throughout Erbil province that aims to bring this phenomenon to an end.

By the completion of this campaign, START Social Development Organization alone has reached out to 1,200 women in the Choman district and surrounding villages in its health awareness campaign.

The project is taking place with four organizations working together, including START, WEO, PAO and WRO, and the entire campaign is supported by PRT-Erbil. The campaign began on April 2, and will continue for six weeks. Each of the four organizations is targeting different districts throughout the province.

Gynecologist Dr. Afifa Sa'eed shows a presentation on FGM and self-examination techniques to detect breast cancer. Coming from the same generation as her target group, she can relate to the audience to get her message across.

One of the women, who went through FGM, as did her daughters, Fatim Hussien, 56, relays her regret, "If only I knew this information sooner, I wouldn't have allowed my girls to be circumcised."

"After the sessions, the participants come to me, one by one, and ask questions, some about FGM and others questions related to gynecology," she smiles, adding that for many it is an opportunity to get a free appointment. "In some of these areas, doctors are rare and gynecologists are rarer, so I try to answer all their health questions after the end of the session," explains Sa'eed.

"Before starting the project, we were less optimistic about the outcome, however, after we got involved in the campaign, we got a lot of positive feedback -- not just from the educated people, but the average village people and especially housewives," said Ali, as the team packs its belongings and rides in two pickup trucks to meet with another group of women -- this time in the mountain village of Beshe.

'Not many of the women know they can screen themselves for signs of breast cancer. Without this knowledge, when they finally are aware, it is too late," said Sa'eed.

The campaign also gives contact information for the Directorate of Trace a Violence Against Women -- encouraging women to contact the directorate if they, or women they know, are victims of domestic violence. The campaign promotes the directorate numbers by putting up posters throughout the district.

At the end of each session, the participants take a survey on FGM, breast cancer and the pending draft law in the Kurdistan Parliament on the protection of women against domestic violence. The organization says it will use the results to push the bill in parliament.

"Many people sympathize with the breast cancer information, and it is receiving a lot of attention in the campaign because there are women in their communities who have been breast cancer patients," said Ali.

This campaign, in different districts of Erbil, is held with the assistance and cooperation of the Ministry of Health, the Islamic Scholars Union as well as the district's Directorate of Education.
"The reaction we have seen to date makes us believe that it is not impossible to create change in certain social values that have negative consequences in the Region," says Ali, at the end of a long day, as the team returns to Erbil.

"We aim to build the capacity of individuals, and through this campaign, we persuade and give information to each one of them. With knowledge and awareness, they begin the change."

"Our endeavor is for the next generation of girls to be FGM-free."