Tunyati, the mother of a 7-month-old girl, had her daughter circumcised as soon as she was born and is convinced that she was fulfilling an Islamic religious duty.
“I’m following God’s order and it’s been done for generations,” 36-year-old Tunyati says, holding her baby in her lap, gently rocking her as she speaks.
“Everybody in my extended family, male or female, was circumcised.”
Many in Indonesia share Sunyati’s belief.
A United Nations report released this year revealed that Indonesia, Egypt and Ethiopia are home to half of the estimated 200 million women and girls around the world who have experienced female genital mutilation.
The Indonesian government is now making a new push to end female genital cutting, after previous attempts were met with opposition from Islamic groups.
“We have formed a task force to approach religious leaders, traditional leaders and women’s organizations to make them aware that the practice has to end,” Yohana Yambise, minister for women and children, told reporters last month.
The UN figure for Indonesia is based on a 2013 basic health survey conducted by the country’s Health Ministry, which found that 51 per cent of girls aged up to 11, or about 14 million girls, have experienced female genital mutilation.
No comparative data for Indonesia is currently available that would indicate whether the practice has declined over the years, the government said.
Globally, the percentage of girls aged 15 to 19 years old who have undergone cutting has declined from 51 per cent in 1985 to 37 per cent today, according to the UN.
“We have embarked on a big research project, and I hope based on the research we can come up with a new policy [on female genital mutilation],” Yambise said.
The 2013 government study found that female circumcision was found across all economic and education levels, with slightly higher rates for urban areas.
Nurlela Nurani, a 26-year old midwife at a maternity clinic in Tapos, on the outskirts of Jakarta, said the worse forms of female genital mutilation had been abandoned in the area.
“Some people have come here asking their daughters to be circumcised,” she said.
“We told them we don’t do that anymore because the government says it’s a violation of children’s rights and has no medical benefits,” she said. “We only do the cleaning, not cutting.”
Some Muslims believe that female circumcision can prevent odour and infections caused by the accumulation of secretions on vaginal lips. They also say it reduces the sensitivity of the clitoris and therefore diminishes sexual response.
“For boys, circumcision is obligatory, but for girls, it’s recommended,” said Hasanuddin Abdul Fatah, the head of the fatwa commission at the Indonesian Council of Ulema.
“The Health Ministry’s ban is not in line with sharia and anything that sharia prescribes must have benefits,” he added. “Now the question is: Are we following the Health Ministry or sharia?”
The Health Ministry banned female genital mutilation in 2006, but backed off four years later after pressure from Muslim organizations and allowed the practice to be carried out by health care professionals.
That regulation was then repealed in 2014, but there are no specific penalties for those who carry out female genital mutilation.
“Female circumcision isn’t identical to female genital mutilation,” said Wara P Osing, head of reproductive health promotion at the Health Ministry.
“Much of the practice in Indonesia is mainly ceremonial and does not cause injuries to the female genitalia,” he said.
He acknowledged that female genital cutting was a sensitive issue in Indonesia.
“It’s got a lot to do with the fact that some sections of the society believe that female circumcision is a tradition or a religious practice which has to be observed,” he said.
Though statistics are unavailable, Wara said he believed the practice has decreased significantly thanks to growing awareness that female genital mutilation is a form of violence against children.
“Efforts to curb female circumcision cannot be made by the Health Ministry alone, because the problem is rooted in traditional and religious practices that have been passed from generation to generation,” he said.