BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The practice of female genital cutting, or "circumcision", is widespread in Iraq's northern Kurdish region and authorities must develop a long-term plan to eradicate it, Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday.
It is estimated that more than 130 million women worldwide have undergone female genital mutilation (FGM), a centuries-old practice still common in some countries, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa, western and southern Asia and parts of the Middle East.
In a report titled "They took me and told me nothing", the New York-based rights watchdog said the most common form practiced in Iraqi Kurdistan was the partial or total removal of the clitoris and/or prepuce (clitoral hood).
Research indicated the practice is widespread in the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, the report said. It cited a German-Iraqi study conducted in 2007/08 in which more than 77 percent of female interviewees aged 14 and over in the Kurdish province of Sulaimaniya had undergone the procedure.
"It's time for the regional government to step up to the plate and take concrete actions to eliminate this harmful practice because it simply won't go away on its own," Nadya Khalife, HRW Middle East women's rights researcher, said.
Often the practice is carried out for cultural or religious reasons, but opponents say it is a brutal form of oppression and potentially life-threatening.
Its origins in mainly Sunni Muslim Kurdistan are unclear, Human Rights Watch said. It said there was no data to establish how common the practice might be in the rest of Iraq. Iraqi Kurdistan has enjoyed semi-autonomy since the end of the first Gulf War.
According to the report, some girls and women said they were told it is rooted in a belief that anything they touch is haram, or unclean, until they go through the procedure. "Most women referred to FGM as an Islamic sunnah, an action taken to strengthen one's religion that is not obligatory," it said.
But for many girls and women in Iraqi Kurdistan, the report said, genital cutting is an unavoidable procedure they undergo sometimes between the ages of three and 12.
The report cited cases of girls being taken by their mothers unaware to unlicensed practitioners. "When they arrived, the midwife, sometimes with the help of the mother, spread the girl's legs and cut her clitoris with a razor blade," it said.
"Often, the midwife used the same razor to cut several girls in succession."
HRW said the Kurdish regional government elected in July 2009 had done nothing to eradicate the practice.
"The government not only needs to take action to end this practice, but to work for public affirmation of a new standard -- not mutilating their girls."
Writing by Matt Robinson; editing by Philippa Fletcher