Jakarta. More than 140 million women worldwide have experienced female genital mutilation, but not everybody knows that many of them live in Indonesia, where over half of girls under 11 are subjected to the dangerous practice that is widely condemned internationally.
Now, with research indicating that government regulations and religious decrees have little to no impact on the prevalence of FGM, activists and officials are making themselves heard once more, to call for a comprehensive solution.
Former Indonesian first lady and longtime women's rights activist Sinta Nuriyah says the tradition -- which she stresses has no beneficial effects at all -- “causes health problems, violates women's rights … and hurts their dignity.”
Sinta, who raised four daughters with the late fourth president of Indonesia, Abdurrahman 'Gus Dur' Wahid, spoke at a seminar hosted by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in Jakarta on Thursday.
She described how her children grew up in a traditional pesantren (Islamic boarding school) environment. Their grandfather, Wahid Hasyim, was a religious affairs minister in the Sukarno era and their great-grandfather, Hasyim Asy'ari, founded Nahdlatul Ulama, currently the biggest religious organization in the country.
Yet none of Sinta's daughters or six granddaughters was subjected to the treatment, which many in Indonesia strongly believe is an integral part of the faith.
“There really is no religious postulate for female circumcision, neither from the Koran nor from the prophet's sayings,” Sinta said, with various religious experts at the meeting concurring. “That is why I am confident that the nahdliyin [followers of NU] will not circumcize their daughters.”
Dearth of knowledge
Research suggests, however, that many Indonesian parents continue to do just that – in various degrees of severity.
At the seminar in Jakarta, Yarsi University professor Jurnalis Uddin presented findings of his research on the issue. He looked at the effects of a 2008 Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) fatwa challenging a ban on FGM issued by Indonesia's Health Ministry in 2006, and at the effects of a 2010 guideline issued by the ministry that overturned its own ban and instead explained in detail how the procedure should be carried out.
The 2010 ministerial guideline was withdrawn last year, meaning that the 2006 ban now stands. But the practice continues.
Jurnalis' research – conducted in Bandung and Indramayu in West Java and Makassar and Maros in South Sulawesi – suggests a dearth of knowledge on FGM on the part of both practitioners and girls undergoing the procedure.
None of the study's respondents were aware of the existence of the 2008 MUI fatwa or of the 2010 Health Ministry guideline. Perhaps not surprisingly, the professor said there was no measurable impact of either on the prevalence of FGM.
Health Ministry data from 2013 suggest 51.2 percent of Indonesian girls have undergone some form of FGM, with the highest prevalence in Gorontalo (83.7 percent) and the lowest in East Nusa Tenggara (2.7 percent).
'Indonesia is lagging behind'
Gunilla Olsson, Unicef's representative in Indonesia, said that people often point out that there are various degrees of damage done to women's genitalia as part of traditional FGM practices – with some having a relatively minor impact – but that the time had come for zero tolerance.
“They're all violations of girls' rights,” Olsson said, pointing out that Indonesia is failing to meet its obligations based on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which it has both ratified.
“Indonesia is lagging behind,” she stressed.
The chief of Unicef's child protection unit, Loren Rumble, concurred. “Is it still mutilation if it is only a scratch?” she said. “Absolutely, yes.”
Pointing at the high prevalence of FGM in Indonesia, Rumble said it is about time people stop associating the practice solely with nations in Africa.
“We need to think about what's happening right here at home,” she said, urging Indonesian women to speak out to protect themselves and their daughters.
Nafissatou J. Diop, the New York-based coordinator of the UNFPA-UNICEF joint program on FGM, stressed the need for a holistic approach.
According to Diop, even when most people in a given region want the practice to stop that doesn't necessarily mean it will, because of the strength of social norms.
When other people continue to carry out FGM, “the stigma attached to not doing it remains,” she told the seminar, calling for a culturally sensitive approach focused on human rights and the empowerment of girls and women, and centered around positive, shared values.
But for such an approach to be successful, women do need to be open about their rejection of the tradition and there needs to be explicit, public affirmation of a collective commitment to abandon FGM at the community level, Diop said.
Access to information
In Indonesia, the Health Ministry says society's demand for female circumcision remains high, regardless of official decrees.
Muchtaruddin Mansyur, director general for children's health, said the ministry is acutely aware of the negative consequences of FGM, but that it is primarily a problem rooted in traditional beliefs.
As female circumcision is not a medical procedure, he argued, there is little the Health Ministry can do in terms of rules and regulations.
But Maria Ulfah Anshor, a member of the Indonesian Commission for Child Protection (KPAI), called on the government to do more against FGM by finally taking a clear stance on the matter.
The commissioner pointed out that FGM is a violation of Indonesia's child protection law and also breaches a host of international conventions and human rights principles.
While also calling on parents to take their responsibility in protecting their children, Maria Ulfah said the government should act quickly and decisively.
What is needed, she said, is “complete, honest and accurate information about opinions on and the effects of female circumcision, so that people can steer clear from this dangerous practice.”