Archive for September 2nd, 2010

Though the Indonesian government banned female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) four years ago, experts say religious support for the practice is more fervent than ever, particularly in rural communities.

A lack of regulation since the ban makes it difficult to monitor, but medical practitioners say FGM/C remains commonplace for women of all ages in this emerging democracy of 240 million – the world’s largest Muslim nation.

Although not authorized by the Koran, the practice is growing in popularity. With increased urging of religious leaders, baby girls are now losing the top or part of their clitoris in the name of faith, sometimes in unsanitary rooms with tools as crude as scissors.

“We fear if [FGM/C] 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.

While the procedure in Indonesia is not as severe as in parts of Africa and involves cutting less flesh, it still poses a serious health concern.

Indonesia forbade health officials from the practice in 2006 because they 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 this year, the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the country’s largest Muslim organization, issued an edict supporting FGM/C, though a leading cleric told the NU’s estimated 40 million followers “not to cut too much”.

FGM/C traditionally existed as a sign of chastity; a symbolic practice performed by shamans, or local healers, who used crude methods such as rubbing and scraping.

With shamans largely falling out of favour, the religious are turning to midwives who rely more on cutting instead.

During the 32-year Suharto dictatorship, outspoken religious expression was discouraged, but since his fall in 1998, people started looking for their religious identity, with stricter interpretations of Islam being adopted by scores of municipalities.

More Indonesian Muslim women wear a headscarf now, claiming it is more accepted than it was 15 years ago.

The 2006 ban prohibited FGM/C, but in practice there is no oversight.

Yarsi University researchers found that in spite of the ban, the practice continues unabated in hospitals and health centres.

According to Yarsi University’s research, most incidents happen in secret, sometimes unhygienic, back-street operating rooms – creating a big risk of infection.

The demand for FGM/C makes it hard to control the practice, said Minister of Women’s Empowerment Linda Amalia Sari Gumelar.

Gumelar is working with the Ministry of Health to make an unsafe practice safer, even though it is outlawed and has been condemned by a large number of treaties and conventions, and ratified by most governments of countries where FGM/C is present.

The development dismays women’s rights fighter Anshor.

“I would advise not to circumcise your daughters at all,” Anshor said. “If women are circumcised, people believe they become more beautiful and not as wild and will make men more excited in bed. For women themselves, they don’t get any excitement at all.”

Part of a longer article at


In the north eastern Ethiopian region of Afar, more than 91 percent of women undergo one of the most severe forms of genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). Reproductive health education however, seems to be paying off, with the number of girls affected reducing, albeit gradually.

The eastern Somali region has the highest prevalence at 97.3 percent against 73.3 nationally, according to Ethiopia’s 2005 Demographic and Health Survey (EDHS).

In Afar, where the cut involves infibulation (or Type III FGM), the removal of the external genitalia, before sealing and leaving a small opening for menstrual blood, CARE Ethiopia is working with former traditional circumcisers to improve awareness of FGM-related effects. The women are trained in reproductive health education and equipped with skills to run alternative small businesses.

Aside from the immediate risks of severe blood loss, shock and infection, longer-term problems associated with FGM include: infections of the urinary and reproductive tracts, infertility and a range of obstetric complications, such as postpartum haemorrhage and death of the baby.

Interventions to enhance women’s and girls’ empowerment are aimed at helping address FGM/C.

FGM/C is among such preparations in a culture where the guarantee of a girl’s virginity is viewed as a prerequisite for an honourable marriage. The belief that FGM/C enhances a girl’s chances of finding a husband helps perpetuate the practice.

Besides being said to be hygienic and aesthetically pleasing, many communities also believe that women who are not cut are prone to break household goods. Taboos against uncircumcised women handling grain, serving food and drinks to elders put additional pressure, notes a report by the UN Children’s Fund.

Where women are largely dependent on men, economic necessity can be a major determinant to undergo the procedure” adds the UN Population Fund (UNFPA). “FGM/FGC sometimes is a prerequisite for the right to inherit.”

UNICEF and UNFPA are also working to reduce FMG/C in Ethiopia.

Nine circumcisers were recently arrested in Afar, with seven being sentenced to between three and five years in jail, Amibara woreda women’s affairs office head, Fatuma Ali, told IRIN.

“These circumcisers were caught red- handed by the community itself,” said Ali. “The anti-FGM/C law [passed in 2004] helped us a lot in the fight against FGM/C. But we don’t see the enforcement of the law as the only option. We are also working with the empowerment of traditional birth attendants, school boys and girls, as a key to eradicate FGM/C from our region.”

In Afar, the FGM prevalence has decreased by 7.5 percent since 1998, said a 2008 survey by the Ethiopia Goji Limadawi Dirgitoch Aswogaj Mehber, former National Committee on Traditional Harmful Practices. (Some agencies have challenged the methodology of this survey).

“We have to educate pastoral women in Afar and Somali. We have to create alternative sources of income for the women so that when they are empowered they will start to question the tradition that is against their life,” Netsanet Asfaw, the government whip, said at the meeting organized by anti-FGM/C advocate, the Somali model Waris Dirie.

Afar has registered at least 2,000 girls as free from circumcision in the past three years, according to CARE Ethiopia and Regional Women’s Affairs Office estimates. This is the highest number so far.

Studies revealed that in 2005, out of 15,000 women surveyed across Ethiopia, only 25.5 percent still supported FGM/C, down from 60 percent five years before, said UNICEF. “As FGM/C is deeply ingrained in the social fabric… any increase in opposition, even a small one, represents a significant indication of change” it noted.

Among the reasons for this is higher educational attainment among women, anti-FGM laws, social support and awareness-raising.

Access to education and control of economic resources would also “enable women to realize the full extent of their rights and may help them conclude that the practice of FGM/C can end”, said UNICEF.

Earning an income is helping women to speak up. “We have never talked to a man like this, we are now discussing equally with men as we save our own money,” Use, who, with 14 other women, formed a group that runs a small shop, told IRIN.

Part of a longer article at

See also: Razor’s Edge – The Controversy of Female Genital Mutilation

A growing number of women in South Africa and other countries in the region have come forward in the last few years with stories of forced or coerced sterilization after an HIV-positive test result.

Local rights groups in Namibia, with the support of the International Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS, have helped uncover 15 such cases, and a trial involving three HV-positive women who say they were sterilized at public health facilities without their consent is due to resume on 1 September in the High Court.

“It does appear that in Namibia [the practice of sterilising HIV-positive women] has been fairly widespread and systemic,” said Delme Cupido, coordinator of HIV/AIDS policy at the Open Society Institute of Southern Africa (OSISA), which is providing funding for the legal action.

Similar cases have been uncovered in Zambia, and Promise Mtembu, an AIDS and women’s rights activist who was herself sterilized in 1997, is gathering stories from South African women living with HIV whose reproductive rights have been violated.

Some of the 12 cases she has so far documented occurred several years before prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) services were available, but the most recent took place in 2009, by which time public health facilities were using a dual-antiretroviral therapy regimen that can reduce the risk of mother-to-child HIV transmission to less than five percent.

Aside from the availability of PMTCT, performing a medical procedure without informed consent is a serious human rights violation and yet, according to Mushahida Adhikari, an attorney at the Women’s Legal Centre in Cape Town working with Mtembu to compile cases with a view to taking legal action, “A lot of women didn’t know it was wrong that they’d been sterilized. In many cases [the women] knew what they were signing, but didn’t feel like they had a choice.”

Mtembu and Adhikari hope to collect enough strong cases to take to South Africa’s High Court and, in the event of a ruling in their favour, to present them to the country’s Constitutional Court, but “It’s going to be a long, hard slog,” Adhikari warned. “A lot of the women don’t necessarily want to be part of a big class action, they just want an apology.”

Often the women do not want to go to court because they have not told their families about being sterilized. Adhikari said the stigma associated with not being able to have children could be as strong as being HIV positive.

Reversal may be possible, depending on how the sterilization was performed, but the procedure is difficult and too expensive for most of the women.

Part of a longer article at

More Polish women are travelling abroad to have an abortion to bypass strict laws outlawing the practice in their overwhelmingly Catholic country, a pro-choice group said last month.

Poland, a country of 38 million where the Catholic Church retains considerable clout, has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the 27-nation European Union.

It allows terminating pregnancy only at an early stage and when it threatens the life or health of the mother, when the baby is likely to be permanently handicapped or when pregnancy originates from a crime, for example rape or incest.

Official statistics show only several hundred abortions are performed every year, but pro-choice campaigners say underground abortions are very common.

“We estimate… that on average 150,000 abortions are performed per year,” Wanda Nowicka, head of the Federation for Women and Family Planning, told lawmakers at a meeting in the Polish parliament on Thursday.

“Of this number, some 10-15 percent of abortions are performed abroad and this number is definitely growing.”

Doctors from Germany, Austria, Britain and the Netherlands who terminate the pregnancies of Polish women every day also attended the meeting.

“Several thousand Polish women terminate pregnancies in Germany every year,” said Janusz Rudzinski from a clinic in Prenzlau in Germany, near the Polish border.

The doctors said women sought abortions abroad because they were illegal at home and often performed in poor conditions. They also fear social ostracism if they undergo an abortion in Poland, the doctors said.

An illegal abortion in Poland costs 2,000-4,000 zlotys ($640-$1,270), compared to 400-600 euros ($510-$760) in Germany, 280 euros in the Netherlands and 450-2,000 pounds ($700-$3,120) in Britain, they said.

In Prenzlau, visits take 3-4 hours, while in Vienna they take two days.

Poland lost a case in the European Court of Human Rights in 2007 to Alicja Tysiac, who nearly went blind after giving birth to a third child following failed attempts to find a doctor who would perform a legal abortion for her.

Abortion regulations are even more strict in Ireland and they also force thousands of women to terminate their pregnancy abroad, mostly in Britain.

“Officially, abortion tourism (into Britain) in 2009 stood at about 7,000 women … Probably more than a thousand, maybe several thousands of them, were Polish,” said Ann Furedi, head of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service.

Many of the Polish women who decide to terminate their pregnancy admit also to using contraception regularly despite declaring themselves Catholic, the doctors said.

The Catholic Church strongly opposes contraception as well as abortion. There has been a lot of public debate on these issues, to the dismay of Polish liberals who say this undermines the country’s secular constitution.

“The abortion law in Poland is a perfect example of how the state is unable to liberate itself from the powerful influence of the Catholic Church,” said independent MP Marek Balicki, who served as health minister in a previous leftist government.

As soon as the divorce bill was filed, it immediately generated a lot of emotional reactions from different sectors, especially the Catholic church. Unable to shy away from the debate on the divorce bill, President Benigno Simeon Aquino III recently declared that he is against divorce but is for legal separation with the option to remarry, which some sectors say is tantamount to divorce.

In the Philippines, which has a predominantly conservative Roman Catholic population, divorce is frowned at in public, although a lot of married couples have been living separately. Couples from wealthy families travel abroad to get divorced and to remarry. The Philippines is only one of two countries that do not have a divorce law yet. Gabriela said Malta, a Mediterranean island, has yet to legislate a divorce bill, too.

Women’s group Gabriela and Gabriela Women’s Party (GWP) are pushing for the passage of House Bill 1799, “An Act Introducing Divorce in the Philippines.” Filed recently by GWP Representatives Luzviminda Ilagan and Emmie de Jesus in Congress, they said this would give couples particularly women the option to terminate a marriage that is no longer working, is already beyond saving and already detrimental to their well-being.

“The absence of a law on divorce is a crucible that will help us move forward from the lowest global ranking on this matter, as globally the Philippines remains as one of just two countries that has no divorce law yet,” Ilagan said in a statement.

Between January and May this year, 204 of the 294 cases of violence against women (VAW) reported to Gabriela were cases of domestic violence, Montes said. She said that aside from emotional abandonment, many of these women complained of financial neglect as they are left on their own to eke out a living for the whole family.

“Wife battery is a reality we cannot turn a blind eye to. When a woman is beaten up by her husband, she must have the freedom to leave the marriage; but at present women do not have this option because existing laws on legal separation and annulment miserably fail to address this reality,” explained Montes.

Culturally and traditionally the burden of making the marriage work and keep it intact lie on women, said Gabriela. Women are prescribed by society to sacrifice themselves to save the marriage. “But we would like to remind the state that it is its policy to ensure fundamental equality, before the law, of women and men; and where a woman is confined to a marriage where she only knows suffering, there is nothing of that equality,” Montes said.

This is the reason why GWP actively supports HB 1799; they called on their colleagues in Congress to make the divorce bill a living proof that it is a “progressive and forward-looking House”.

Ilagan said she believes Congress would allow for intelligent and rights-based discourse on the bill as that is consistent with House Speaker Sonny Belmonte’s call for each and every representative to “overcome self-interest to raise Filipinos and the Philippines to a proud stature in the global ranking of nations”.

The Philippines is a conservative country that thinks a divorce law will only create more broken families because a couple with problems could easily opt for divorce. Some believe that if the divorce bill is passed it will make a mockery of marriage.

Rep. De Jesus stressed that in other Catholic countries like Spain and Italy where a divorce law is in force, it did not necessarily resulted in an increase in divorce cases filed in court.

De Jesus added that as early as on the first week after the divorce bill was filed and tackled by media, some sectors are already forwarding biased and unfounded fears. She said Gabriela has counselled a lot of married women who have been abused or battered, but who considered leaving their husbands only after years and years of repetitive and cyclical battering.

“A couple who is in a happy or satisfactory marital relationship would definitely not seek divorce just because it is legal. It is not easy to build a quality marital relationship. We at Gabriela would be the first to advice couples to work more on their relationship as this redounds to their holistic well being and promotion of the rights of both partners in the relationship,” she said.

Part of a longer article at

More and more women would die from complications arising from unsafe abortions in the Philippines, warned the country’s women’s groups, as they called for abortions to be legalised.

According to the Centre for Reproductive Rights, more than half a million Filipino women undergo illegal abortions every year. Of these, an estimated 90,000 women suffer complications with about 1,000 dying eventually.

The women’s groups said it is time for the predominantly Roman Catholic country to allow for safe and legal abortion, to save thousands of women from undergoing crude and unsafe procedures.

“The criminalisation of abortion has not prevented the procedure, but made it unsafe. In all cases, the ban leads to one frightening direction – that of painful risky and potentially fatal methods of pregnancy termination,” Centre for Reproductive Rights Melissa Upreti said.

Although abortion is illegal in the Philippines, government hospitals are mandated to provide post-abortion care treatment to women.

In the Dr Jose Fabella Memorial Hospital for instance, more than half of the women who seek treatment are for complications arising from illegal and unsafe abortions.

Dr Jose Fabella Memorial Hospital Dr Emmanel Ganal said most abortion cases were due to unwanted pregnancy.

“Those that are induced are usually unwanted pregnancies. It’s either they don’t want the pregnancy, or they have reasons like they want to go abroad so they induced it. They take some medications to remove the pregnancy,” he said.

For now, women’s rights groups are hoping that the new Congress would be able to pass a controversial Reproductive Health bill, that the influential Catholic Church opposed last year.

That piece of legislation would uphold the use of artificial contraceptives and institutionalise sex education in schools.

That would hopefully help prevent more cases of unsafe abortion in the country.

Part of a longer article at

Nearly two decades after a peasant woman’s suicide first raised national awareness about the danger of religious rulings, and one month after a high court outlawed deadly edicts, killings of women in the name of religion continue in Bangladesh, human rights groups say.

Seventeen years ago, Nurjahan Begum, a peasant woman from northeastern Bangladesh was publicly stoned after a ‘shalish’ – a village ruling council – found her guilty of committing adultery. Immediately after the stoning, she fled to her father’s house and took poison to kill herself.

“This was the first fatwa we heard about through the national newspapers and the first time we took action,” said Hameeda Hossain, chairperson of Ain o Salish Kendra, a local aid and human rights organization.

The fatwa is an Islamic religious ruling used at times by elites in Bangladesh’s rural villages to the detriment of women – mainly from poor families. Fatwa rulings have resulted in women being beaten and caned – all outside of the law – leading many of them to commit suicide to save family honour, according to rights groups.

Last month Bangladesh’s highest court outlawed all punishments handed down in fatwas, but a weak judicial system coupled with deep-rooted social traditions means there is still a long way to go, said activist Hossain.

“It’s very difficult to enforce a law in Bangladesh. The state is very weak. There’s always this sense in the community that they know what’s best and they’re taking up what they consider to be moral issues.”

Bangladesh is 90 percent Muslim and rights groups have criticized the government for being slow to prevent atrocities occurring in the name of fatwas, despite a number of high profile incidents.

In Nurjahan’s case, the mosque leader and eight other members of the ‘shalish’ were sentenced to seven years of hard labour in 1994. But most cases do not receive nationwide attention.

“If the woman doesn’t find support then she tends to give in to whatever is being done to her and take the punishment,” said Hossain.

Kushi Kabir, coordinator of Nijera Kori, [] a local NGO, told IRIN the prevalence of religious punishments against women is attributable to wealthy elites trying to exert control over their communities.

“In Bangladesh a lot of issues related to what is considered socially acceptable behaviour, and what is not considered socially acceptable, gets resolved through the ‘shalish’,” Kabir said.

“It is commonly practised as a means of control over people who they feel need to be controlled. So it’s used by the powerful male elites in the villages over what they feel is behaviour that could lead to a lack of control,” she said.

Increased media attention and public awareness is slowly starting to empower more of Bangladesh’s women to understand their constitutional rights and take a stand against violent methods of oppression.

“Eventually [public awareness] will instigate change. Now more and more news is appearing in the newspapers about religious punishments, the fatwas, which means that it has been quite a sensation,” said Syeda Rizwana Hasan, chief executive of the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association. []

“Previously it was there but nobody ever wrote about it because it was taken as part of society, but now people have started protesting against it,” she said. “Women’s voices are being heard more and more, but they are not more powerful. It’s just the second generation of people coming out of the houses.”