First published in Indonesia Expat, 1 August 2017
Female genitalia mutilation is common practice in Indonesia. Although it is largely associated with Islamic teachings, many claim there is no connection to the religion. I speak to women who have experience first-hand and discover that there are more than negative physical effects caused by this incredible act of violation of human rights.
Nini works as a house helper in Jakarta. Recently a grandmother to baby twin girls, she had planned to accompany her son and daughter-in-law to the twins’ first official doctor’s appointment a few days after their births in South Jakarta. The routine visit was to include a check-up, vaccinations and the female circumcision.
Female genitalia mutilation, known in Bahasa Indonesia as ‘sunat perempuan’ is a common practice in Indonesia – and not just in rural areas. Parents and guardians like Nini have been told that the practice of either partially cutting or removing the clitoris entirely at a young age, without the child’s consent, is part of religious tradition that must be honoured. According to a 2016 report by UNICEF, 49 percent of Indonesian girls aged below 14 had undergone female genital mutilation by 2015.
In the country with the highest population of Muslims in the world, many people in Indonesia believe the practice is part of their religious passage. Historical records show that the practice began in the country with the arrival of Islam in the 13th century. It is carried out in different regions of the archipelago where Islam is predominant.
“I only know about sunat perempuan from the Betawi people I know, who say that it’s a religious passage in Islam,” says Nini, a Muslim who is originally from Cirebon and has not been circumcised. “Maybe it’s according to different regions’ traditions and beliefs.”
In 2013 the Indonesian Ulema Council ruled in favour of this violation against human rights, claiming it is part of Islamic teachings. Many Muslims, however, would disagree that it is taught in their religion.
Wulan Danoekoesoemo is the Co-Founder of Lentera Indonesia, an NGO aimed at providing support and counsel for victims of sexual abuse. Wulan is also a practicing Muslim and believes there is no passage in the Koran that teaches female circumcision.
“Female genitalia mutilation is not part of Islamic teachings,” she tells Indonesia Expat. “It has no medical/health benefit and was passed on through the generations as part of culture and tradition.”
Wulan herself is a victim of this violation against human rights. When she was only a few days old, her mother – believing she was acting in her daughter’s best interests at the time – took her to a clinic to have the procedure done on her. Although Wulan does not have any significant physical effects, she experiences psychological side effects until this day on a daily basis.
“Every time I get water on that region, I feel an incredibly overwhelming feeling of sadness and depression that I can’t explain,” she confesses.
“I feel worthless. It’s as though that part of me still recalls the extraordinary violation that took place all those years ago, and conveys it through my emotions.”
Wulan also teaches psychology at Binus University, and believes the psychological ramifications of female genitalia mutilation are significant to a woman’s development.
“When you’ve been violated from such a young age, it stays with you and defines the person who you are,” she says honestly. “Contrary to male circumcision in Indonesia, where the child or young man ultimately gets to make the decision as to whether or not he wants to ‘have the snip,’ girls are not asked – it just happens to them.”
The World Health Organisation states that the procedure has no health benefits whatsoever, contrary to popular local belief, unlike male circumcision, where health benefits include a reduced risk of some sexually transmitted diseases, protection against penile cancer and a reduced risk of cervical cancer in female sex partners.
The same practice on females can lead to harm. According to the World Health Organisation the procedure “can cause severe bleeding and problems urinating and later cysts, infections, as well as complications in childbirth and increased risk of newborn deaths.”
As Wulan experienced, psychological problems, including low self-esteem, depression and anxiety are long-term consequences associated with the practice.
Female genital mutilation is classified into four major types. Type one is the partial or total removal of the clitoris, type two is the partial or full removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, and type three is the narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal. Type four includes all other harmful procedures carried out on the female genitalia for nonmedical purposes; pricking, piercing, scraping and cauterizing.
In Indonesia, types one and four is prevalent. In 2006 the government tried to ban the practice, a move that proved unsuccessful and was lifted. In 2010, the Health Ministry issued a decree outlining the ‘proper’ procedure for the circumcision, and has since tried to accommodate cultural and religious considerations, focusing efforts on eradicating type one genital mutilation and promoting a ‘safer’ type four, which involves pricking the clitoris, not removing it. Activists claim this contradicts the 2006 ruling prohibiting clinics from performing any mutilation and causes confusion among the public.
Wulan’s circumcision falls into type four. She believes the public needs to be educated about the practice to help them understand.
“People need to know and understand consent and how the female genitalia mutilation does not give the opportunity to women to agree or disagree to the practice. People may mean no harm to their daughters when they exercised this, but they also need to be aware of the physical and psychological impact that may result from this experience.”
Wulan believes the government needs to start being more firm when it comes to protecting personal choices.
“Despite tradition, it is still a matter of taking away an individual’s right to allow or not allow actions to be done to their bodies.”
She urges the government to start socializing accurate information about female genitalia mutilation: “working with local influencers and primary health care providers to reconstruct people’s understanding on female genitalia mutilation issues taking various approaches as well. It will take a lot of time but it needs to start somewhere.”
After receiving the facts about the dangers of female genitalia mutilation, Nini decided not to take her twin granddaughters to have the procedure done. These two little girls were the lucky ones.