SEATTLE, Washington — In 2012, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution calling for an end to female genital mutilation (FGM) around the world. Hailed as a landmark step towards curbing FGM, also known as female circumcision, the resolution found support in a number of countries where female genital mutilation was considered common practice. However, eight years later, female genital mutilation in Indonesia remains extremely widespread, with thousands of young women and girls continuing to undergo the procedure every year.
What is Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)?
As laid out by the World Health Organization (WHO), female genital mutilation constitutes “the partial or total removal of external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.” The practice of FGM can be found in several countries, including Indonesia, and is often rooted in local traditions.
Despite the existence of FGM as a centuries-old cultural practice, many modern scientists argue that the tradition has no health benefits. Furthermore, researchers have insisted that FGM can lead to a host of disastrous physical and psychological complications later on in life, including urinary, menstrual, sexual and anxiety-related problems. Additionally, botched procedures can lead to severe injury and sometimes death.
The procedure is usually carried out during the first few years of a girl’s life and often leads to intense financial costs that come with treating complications. Nonetheless, FGM remains a common practice in many regions of the world.
FGM in Indonesia
As of 2020, UNICEF estimated that 49% of women in Indonesia aged 15 to 49 had undergone FGM.
In an interview with The Borgen Project, Yale’s Dwight Hall Peace Initiative explained that “FGM is quite common in Indonesia with thousands of women having undergone the experience and many girls continuing to undergo the procedure every year.”
With a population of over 260 million people, Indonesia is home to the world’s largest Muslim population. FGM in Indonesia finds much of its roots in the country’s Islamic beliefs. “Many people in the country use Islam as a justification for female genital mutilation,” said the Dwight Hall Peace Initiative.
However, FGM is not widely considered to be an Islamic obligation and is not particularly widespread in most of the Middle East. The majority of Sunni Islamic schools of thought have declared the practice as not obligatory, although a moderate form does remain recommended by some.
Proponents of FGM in Indonesia argue that the version of the practice performed in the country is entirely safe and does not pose any health risks.
“One of the reasons why female genital mutilation in Indonesia is not as controversial, for lack of a better word, is because FGM in Indonesia is largely not as invasive of a procedure. While FGM in Africa will often involve cutting or incising, FGM in Indonesia will simply involve some scraping or light cutting,” the Dwight Hall Peace Initiative explained. As classified by the WHO, this type of female circumcision in Indonesia is often considered less severe than those practiced elsewhere.
In recent years, the Indonesian government has taken a variety of positions on the issue of FGM, starting with an outright ban of the practice in 2006. However, by 2010, Indonesia legalized FGM once again, with the procedure instituted in every hospital in the country and carried out by medical personnel. In providing a universal medicalization of the procedure, Indonesia’s government hoped to ensure a more safe and sterile version of the practice.
Curbing FGM in Indonesia
Despite FGM’s prevalence in Indonesia, many groups and individuals have advocated and campaigned to reduce the practice in the Southeast Asian country.
Following the universal medicalization of FGM by Indonesia’s government in 2010, The Women’s Commission in Indonesia and the Committee on the Rights of the Child exerted a maximum pressure campaign to repeal this action, and by 2014, the law was struck down.
In repealing the medicalization of FGM, many activists hoped that access to the procedure, and therefore its prevalence, could be reduced across the country.
Another tactic that is being pursued includes collaborating with Indonesia’s cohort of female Islamic leaders. The Muslim women’s ‘Kongres Ulama Perempuan Indonesia’ has focused on bringing an end to FGM as part of its agenda since 2017.
NGOs have also joined the cause—one group called the Orchid Project launched the Asia Network to End FMG/C in 2020. The group is heavily involved in preventing FGM in Indonesia and has teamed up with many prominent groups and activists on the ground. By devoting resources and attention to the issue, the Orchid Project hopes to bring an end to FGM in Indonesia and the region by 2030.
The Orchid Project is also establishing a platform that will gather specific data and evidence on FGM practices and work with religious scholars to help people understand the dangers of the practice. The Project has also received support from the Wallace Global Fund, a prominent group working to advance global democracy and rights.
The Road Ahead
Although female genital mutilation is a seemingly ingrained part of Indonesian society and one that continues to be widespread across the Southeast Asian archipelago, work by organizations and individuals alike continue to make a meaningful impact in reducing the harmful practice. With continued effort and support, female genital mutilation may soon be on a rapid decline, hopefully ensuring a more positive future for girls and women across Indonesia.
– Shayaan Subzwari