Female circumcision in Indonesia, the unheard alarm

The problem is that rather than strictly forbidding the practice by enforcing the law to protect women from dangerous practices, Female Genital Mutilation has become more widespread through medicalization.

Lies Marcoes

Lies Marcoes

The Jakarta Post


File photo of a woman's silhouette. PHOTO: UNSPLASH

February 7, 2024

JAKARTA – Today, Feb. 6, the world commemorates the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C). Although female circumcision has existed for centuries, the United Nations only issued its declaration to eliminate the practice in 2012.

Research studies and advocacy in many countries, mainly in Africa and Asia, including Indonesia, have proven that FGM is a harmful form of gender-based violence that is closely related to prejudice regarding women’s bodies and sexuality.

The UN has established the term FGM/C as referring to all procedures that injure or alter female genitalia for nonmedical reasons, and are performed based on suspicion and distrust about female sexuality on an assumption that women’s libido needs to be controlled by mutilating their genitals.

The world body has agreed that these acts violate women’s basic rights and dignity as humans.

Recently, the UN reported that thanks to systematic efforts made over the past decade, cases of FGM worldwide had declined. But it also provided a specific note urging governments in some countries like Indonesia to pay greater attention to efforts to prevent and eradicate the practice of FGM/C in a planned and systematic way.

The UN has asked Indonesia to provide oversight and monitoring to reduce this practice, which threatens the safety and health of women.

The problem is that rather than strictly forbidding the practice by enforcing the law to protect women from dangerous practices, FGM has become more widespread through medicalization.

The Health Ministry’s policy authorizing medical personnel to perform female circumcision if necessary has been misinterpreted as a recommendation amid the rise of conservative religious sentiment, intertwined with the commercialization of medical services.

Advertisements can be seen everywhere offering female circumcision services, even for adult women.

Meanwhile, the root of the problem lies in gender norms reinforcing the belief that circumcision is a part of religious teachings, which is culturally believed to be an effective way to control the female libido from infancy.

In the absence of updated data, or the lack thereof, on the practice of female circumcision in Indonesia, the 2013 Basic Health Research (Riskesdas) survey showed that 51.2 percent, or one in two girls below the age of 14, had undergone some form of FGM. These include symbolic FGM that involves stroking or scratching the genitals, as well as more severe mutilation that involves cutting part or all of the clitoris.

Meanwhile, the results of the 2021 National Survey on Women’s Life Experience (SPHPN) found that 55 percent of women aged between 15 and 64 who live with their families had experienced female circumcision. The SPHPN further elaborated that 21.3 percent of female circumcision was done by injuring or cutting the clitoris (FGM type 1, according to the WHO), 21.1 percent was symbolic, or involved brushing with cotton swabs with alcohol or Betadine, and the remaining 12.6 percent did not know the details of the procedure that was performed on them.

The medicalization of FGM, together with the rise of religion as an identity, has created a combined problem that can be assumed to be the reason why the practice is on the rise. Another issue is that Indonesia still lacks a solid legal framework for preventing and addressing FGM as a criminal act. However, Indonesia has a law that prohibits acts of sexual violence and other forms of gender-based violence.

A more complex problem is that the state has never asked authoritative religious organizations, such as the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), to agree that FGM is an act of violence that is prohibited by religion. Among the various institutions with the authority to determine religious law on such matters, there is still a wide range of opinions: female circumcision is seen as permitted, not permitted, recommended or even required.

In April 2017, the Indonesian Congress of Women Ulema (KUPI), attended by more than 100 ulema, academics and women activists, issued the result of its religious deliberations at the level of a fatwa declaring that when performed without a medical reason, female genital mutilation and cutting is haram, or forbidden by Islamic law.

But as is generally the case for a fatwa, its authority does not extend to enforcement. As a result, despite the severity of this human rights violation, there are very few collective efforts to address the practice in Indonesia.

It is very clear that FGM is an act of violence, and the alarm about its dangers should be ringing loudly. But the fact is, this alarm is going unheard. During the presidential debates, none of the candidates touched on the issue of the dangers of FGM/C or offered any measures to overcome it.

The problems have been mapped out. These include a lack of legal resoluteness, the rise of conservatism that uses religion as an identity and a makeshift approach that emphasizes reducing the risk of infection rather than getting to the root of the problem of FGM: the strength of gender-biased views about women’s bodies and sexuality.

What can and must be done now is to foster public awareness about the health impacts of FGM, not just among midwives and medical workers but also among decision-makers.

To date, very few civil society organizations in Indonesia are addressing FGM, and even fewer are doing so using a religious perspective.

There are very few, if any, programs that continuously serve as reference sources for FGM in Indonesia. And when we seek information online using the keywords “female circumcision in Islam in Indonesia”, the top search results are recommendations to perform FGM as something good for women’s health.

Indonesia needs the confidence to recognize FGM as an act of violence that violates the rights of children, the rights of women to bodily integrity and human rights.

Let the alarm ring loudly and clearly so that we can be alert to the dangers of tolerating the practice of FGM.

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