By Emma Batha
LONDON, Feb 6 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The practice of female genital mutilation has fallen dramatically in northern Iraq, campaigners said on Monday as they urged religious leaders to use sermons and fatwas to help stamp out the ancient ritual.
A survey of nearly 6,000 women with daughters aged four to 14 in Iraq's Kurdish region indicated almost 45 percent had undergone FGM compared to less than 11 percent of their daughters.
"We're very encouraged," said Hannah Wettig, coordinator of the Stop FGM Middle East campaign.
"We're quite certain that we can eradicate FGM in one generation if efforts continue," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM.
Worldwide an estimated 200 million women in at least 30 countries have been affected by FGM which is internationally condemned as a major rights abuse.
The ritual, which can cause physical, psychological and sexual problems, is most commonly associated with Africa, but is also practised in parts of Asia and the Middle East.
Stop FGM Middle East was set up by German charity WADI which has spearheaded efforts to end FGM in the mostly Muslim Kurdish region of northern Iraq since first uncovering it in 2004.
The ritual is performed on girls between four and 12 by a female relative or traditional cutter. The girl's clitoris is usually cut with a razorblade and the wound may be covered with ash to stop bleeding, WADI said.
The study, conducted by U.S.-based anti-poverty group Heartland Alliance with the support of the Kurdistan government and U.N. children's agency UNICEF, showed religion was the most common reason women gave for continuing the ritual, even though FGM predates Islam and is not mentioned in the Koran.
Many mothers also cited tradition and some believed their daughters would not be able to marry unless cut.
The authors said the study, whose findings came out last year but were not publicised, showed it was crucial to engage religious leaders in the fight to end FGM.
"They should be encouraged to include messages about ending (FGM) in their local communities in Friday prayers and sermons," the authors said. "Issuing a fatwa condemning the practice ... is another powerful step religious leaders and religious-based political parties could take."
The last few years have seen a growing momentum to eradicate FGM, but rates remain stubbornly high in some African nations.
Wettig said she thought one reason for the marked decline in Iraqi Kurdistan was that it was a society open to change. The regional government banned FGM in 2011.
"It is a young democracy and the government - after some resistance - really embraced this campaign," she said.
(Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.)
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