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Activists adressing women issues at an event in Jakarta  - credits by US embassy

Activists adress women issues at an event in Jakarta – credits: US embassy

A Disputed Topic

Female Genital Mutilation has been documented to be practiced in Indonesia since long. Regional studies already from the 1990s have found a prevalence of more than 90 percent in some areas. It occurs in parts of East, Central and West Java, North Sumatra, Aceh, South Sulawesi and on Madura Island, as well as in many other parts of the archipelago.

A 2003 paper reports that 92% of Indonesian families would choose to continue the practice of FGM on their children and grandchildren. According to one statistic 12 percent of babies born in hospitals, birthing centers and by government midwives are cut today. Even if this last number seems much lower than the results of other studies, it would still be a very high number in this Southeast Asian nation of 283 million inabitants.

Indonesia is the largest Muslim-majority nation in the world with 88 percent of its people adhering to Islam and the majority of these adhering to the Shafi school of Sunni Islam – the only one of the four law school which describes female circumcision as obligatory (wajib) by Islam. Indonesia’s clergy supports FGM in its majority, while many human rights advocates voice their dissent. A vivid discussion about pro and con of FGM has been going on in the last years which has been picked up on by international media occasionally.

The more surprising it seems that Indonesia, just as most countries outside Africa, does not find itself on many maps or lists of organizations combatting FGM. If there is any place in Asia where FGM was known to exist for sure since years, it is Indonesia.

The Ulema pushed the government to allow FGM

Indonesia was also one of the first countries to ban FGM. In 2006, the government prohibited health officials to perform FGM because it considered it a “useless” practice that “could potentially harm women’s health”. However, the ban was quickly opposed by the Indonesian Ulema Council, the highest Islamic advisory body in Indonesia.

In March 2010, the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the country’s largest Muslim organization, issued an edict supporting FGM, while a leading cleric told the NU’s estimated 40 million followers “not to cut too much”.

In November 2010, the goverment gave in to the pressure by Muslim organizations and lifted the ban. Instead the Ministry of Health issued regulations concerning FGM. The new regulation authorises certain medical professionals, such as doctors, midwives and nurses, to perform it and defines the practice as “the act of scratching the skin covering the front of the clitoris, without hurting the clitoris”. The procedure includes “a scratch on the skin covering the front of the clitoris, using the head of a single use sterile needle” (Article 4.2 (g)). Following this new regulation Amnesty International called on the government to repeal the law.

Tradionally, the practice of FGM in Indonesia does not include severe cuts as in other countries. Midwifes may use a blood lancet or sewing needle to prick the clitoris until bleeding occurres, as a study by the University of Indonesia’s Women’s Research Graduate Program found. In other cases they merely symbolically wiped the clitoris with alcohol and bethadine.

Yet, even such “pricking” can cause harm, as experts affirm. “Even a small wound on the genitals can lead to sexual, physiological and physical problems,” Artha Budi Susila Duarsa, a university researcher at Yarsi University told IRIN.

FGM on the rise

Since the new regulation is in place numbers of FGM victims may be rising. “This will give doctors a new motivation to circumcise [girls] because now they can say the Ministry of Health approves of this, and the Indonesian Ulamas’ Council approves of it,” Jurnalis Uddin, doctor and lecturer at Yarsi University in Jakarta, told IRIN. “I think that doctors will use these guidelines to make money from circumcision,” Uddin said, adding that Indonesia’s poorly regulated medical practitioners often viewed medicine as a business.

Already in an article from 2010, Duarsa, the university researcher at Yarsi University in Jakarta expressed her concern that numbers of FGM victims could be rising after clerics had taken a strong stand in favour of the practice.

“We fear if it gets more outspoken support from religious leaders it will increase even more. We found in our latest research that not only female babies are being circumcised, but also older women ask for it,” said Artha Budi Susila Duarsa, a university researcher at Yarsi University in Jakarta.

Another rather new phenomenon are the mass ceremonies in which girls are circumcised. Such events organized by Muslim charities have been on the rise since former dictator Suharto was ousted in 1998. Before female circumcision was more of a private matter. Such religious ceremonies could further increase the number of victims.

Further Reading:

Abigail Haworth: The day I saw 248 girls suffering genital mutilation, The Guardian, 28 Nov 2012

Irin News: Indonesia: FGM/C regulations mistaken as endorsement, experts say, 1.9.2011

Orchid Project: Indonesia – Ministry of Health’s guidelines on female genital cutting, 31.8.2011

Amnesty International: Indonesia must repeal Female Genital Mutilation law, 24.6.2011

Irin News: Indonesia: Female Genital Mutilation persists despite ban, 2.9.2010

William G. Clarence-Smith: Islam and Female Genital Cutting in Southeast Asia: The Weight of the Past, Finish Journal of Ethnicity and Migration, 2008

Male and Female Genital Cutting Among Yogyakartans and Madurans, Center for Population and Policy Studies (CPPS), Gadjah Mada University, Indonesia, 2003

United States Departement of State: Indonesia: Report on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) or Female Genital Cutting (FGC), 2001

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