Female genital mutilation persists despite ban in Indonesia

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 http://www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/IRIN/eb96b7a12a77556b16833ac9600fabe3.htm

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