Female circumcision — a practice that is now regarded as criminal in many countries — is still commonly practiced in Indonesia as health officials and activists argue on whether the tradition should be banned completely.
The Health Ministry issued a circular letter in 2006 prohibiting professional health workers, including nurses, midwives or physicians, from performing female genital circumcision, a move that was hailed as progressive by activists.
But the ministry learned later that cruel circumcision was still practiced in several regions in Indonesia. In 2010, it decided to lift the ban by issuing a regulation that outlined safe and proper procedures for carrying out female circumcision, to the chagrin of women’s activists who saw the policy as lending support to the practice.
Many people, however, appear to be ignorant about the regulations. Conny, a midwife in Jakarta, said that she had never heard of the circular banning the practice despite monthly meetings held at her community health center. She said that people who gave birth to baby girls at her center usually asked for circumcision and ear piercing.
“I only do it for babies under 40 days old. If the babies are older than that, I’ll ask the parents to take them to a general practitioner.”
But even if medical practitioners are aware of the ban, the policy might still be ineffective as there are parents who resort to unskilled and unlicensed traditional healers to have their daughters circumcised when doctors or midwives refuse to carry out the requested procedure.
Ria, a midwife who works at a hospital in Bekasi, said that her office no longer performed female circumcision on baby girls since the 2006 circular was issued, but it appeared that some parents were not swayed by the ban and sought the service from other people.
“If the parents were religious, they would insist on having the baby circumcised. But we follow the circular, we do not do female circumcision anymore. They usually find other people who will do it, such as traditional healers.”
The 2010 circular stipulates that female circumcision can only be performed at the request or approval of the baby girl’s parents.
It regulates the procedures licensed medical officers need to perform during the circumcision, such as washing hands before the procedure, wearing gloves and only using sterile equipment. It also emphasizes that female circumcision does not fall into the World Health Organization’s (WHO) description of female genital mutilation, which refers to procedures that intentionally injure female genital organs for non-medical reasons.
Instead of providing health benefits for girls and women, female genital mutilation can cause severe bleeding and urinary problems. It may even lead to complications during childbirth, resulting in a higher risk of newborn deaths, WHO said.
The tradition is not entirely sanctioned by religion, according to activists. Nur Rofiah from Fatayat NU, the women’s wing of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), said that the order to perform female circumcision was based on hadiths (sayings and actions of the Prophet) that fell into the weaker hadith category.
“Many clerics also ban female circumcision, because the Koran does not specifically mention it. Even the hadiths mentioning it emphasize that it should not be overly performed,” she said.
She said that the difference between circumcision for males and females was that in the case of males, it removed a piece of skin, while in female tissue it removed actual body tissue. Since women have a complex reproductive system, circumcision could affect pregnancy and birth.
While regarded as ineffective, she argued, the ban on female circumcision stopped a number of parents from circumcising their baby girls.
Sumarni, 54, who has two grandchildren: Keanu, a six-year-old boy and Tania, a four-year-old girl, said that while her family planned to circumcise the boy, she was still hesitant about doing the same for the girl. “My daughter had the baby girl at a private hospital. The doctors and nurses did not circumcise her, they said they no longer perform circumcision. Now that my granddaughter is growing up, we think we will not do it for it will be too painful for her,” she said.
International Efforts to Eliminate FGM (Female Genital
Legislation/Decree (year enacted) in several countries
African Republic (1966)
(ministerial decree, 2008)
(multiple states, 1999-2002)
(6 of 8 states, 1994-97)
States (Federal law, 1996; 17 of 50 states,
Photo: JP/Panca Nugraha, Graphic: JP/Aziz