This article was originally written for and published by Awat Newspaper. 

In my previous article about the dangers of a potential HIV epidemic in South Kurdistan I spoke about the use of prevention, of such diseases, as a first line treatment. When tackling the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases (STDs) prevention has been shown to be the most effective form of treatment. This is due to the fact that most STDs are not yet curable but only have treatable measures, so once a patient is infected they can only be given measures to help them live a normal life with the disease but have the potential to pass it on to anyone else which they become physically involved with.

So how do you prevent the inevitable and potentially fatal? Education. If a population is educated about the dangers of a certain topic they will be more inclined to avoid the dangers by taking measures which are available to stop them coming into contact with such events. Sex education is taught in most western countries and used as a tool to empower people, especially teenagers, with the knowledge of the dangers associated with sex and how to prevent them. Many will argue that sexual acts and STDs are also more common in the west compared to that of Middle Eastern countries; however, nowhere in the Middle East is there direct information about the percentage of population infected with STDs, in which I could share in this article. It is such a taboo subject anything related to it is completely ignored in a bid to avoid the discussion of sex.

Although the system of sex education in the west has its flaws, it allows for discussion of such sensitive topics and helps to raise awareness of certain diseases, like STDs. In most of the Middle East not just in Kurdistan Sex education is a very taboo subject, in most instances an almost forbidden topic of discussion between married couples, parents and their children, and even with health professionals trained in the area. Many believe religion has a hand to play in this type of mentality, others believe it is more of a cultural influence. Regardless of the reasons behind the taboo nature of providing or speaking about Sex education, it is a vital step towards raising awareness amongst society about the potential dangers of STDs. This will also lead to more awareness of symptoms associated with STDs, so that those infected are able to identify them before it is too late and seek medical help. Most STDs can lead to other health problems and be potentially fatal if left untreated.

Doctors working in Kurdistan have told stories of young women being hospitalized after the sheer terror of their “first night” when they get married. For generations females and males are kept in the dark about the education of sex and are expected to just figure it out once they are married and most of what is known, especially those in the elder generation, is pure mythology. However, with the technology and internet sources available these days society is looking to places like the World Wide Web for information. The internet doesn’t have a filter and most information obtained through these channels may cause more harm than good.

Trifa Bajalani, a Kurdish-American, currently in South Kurdistan on vacation believes that from her observations the fear of sex becoming a norm in society, especially among youth, is what drives the mentality of its forbidden nature. She also says that sex (before marriage) does already exist, even among the youth but is done behind closed doors. The fact that sex education is such a “hush hush” topic in these societies even those educated about the topic enough to know a problem when they see one, cannot seek medical help due to the fear of social and mental backlash of speaking about such topics. This is why it is so important to publicize the education of the dangers associated with sex. Every individual should, at the very least, have the option of sex education available to them and they should be readily available to the general public. The introduction of sex education may bring about changes in the mentality towards these topics as well and ultimately could have the potential to save many lives.

More worrying than anything is that this type of mentality and lack of education towards sex creates a culture of honor killings, genital mutilation, and rape. The Doaa Network Against Violence reported an alarming figure of more than 12,000 women who had died in honor-based killings between 1991 and 2007 in South Kurdistan. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) dismissed this figure on the grounds that the number had decreased in recent years, but was unable to provide any statistics. It was only in 2008, four years ago, that the KRG passed a law to officially recognise honor-killings as murder. In 2010 the German NGO Wadi released a report, based on interviews with 1,700 women, which revealed that a staggering 72.7 percent of women in the region’s two biggest provinces of Hewler and Slemani were victims of female genital mutilation, with the rate rising to almost 100 percent in some areas. Although I was unable to find statistics of rape, an article published in The Guardian in 2007 about the suicide of young women revealed that “Rape is committed habitually” throughout Iraq, including South Kurdistan. The article highlights that victims of rape then turn to suicide because of the fear of people finding out and the hopelessness they feel when they are unable to speak to anyone about such problems. This all comes back to the mentality and taboo nature of sex.

Like any controversial topic it will take time and patience for it to be introduced and integrated among society and then accepted by the majority, However sex education should be a definite point of discussion when changes to the educational system in Kurdistan are being made, Maybe Kurdistan can be the leading example for the rest of the Middle East.

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