Bandung. “Once a baby girl is 40 days old, she can be circumcised. That’s the tradition,” says Lusi, a mother of one.
“My mother says the child must bleed, but the midwife said there’s no bleeding involved because she’s just cleaning it up down there.”
Lusi is one of many mothers in Indonesia who subject their daughters to a procedure involving pricking and piercing the hood of the clitoris with a needle, citing an Islamic belief that it will keep the girl’s libido in check when she grows up.
Although there is no official data to gauge the extent of the practice, women’s and children’s rights activists say it is widespread, particularly in rural areas.
Ellin Rozana, the executive director of the Women’s Institute, an advocacy group, argues that a Health Ministry regulation issued in 2010 that legitimizes the practice must be repealed.
She says the government’s rationale — that the form of female circumcision performed in the country is largely symbolic and not harmful — is irrelevant, and that no form of female circumcision can be justified on religious grounds.
“Admittedly the circumcision practiced in Indonesia isn’t as bad as in some African countries, where they mutilate parts of the girl’s genitals,” she tells the Jakarta Globe.
“Here they call it pricking and cleaning, but there’s no clear reason for why it has to be done. It’s different from male circumcision, which has clear health benefits.”
Ellin says the age-old reason given, that the circumcision prevents a girl from having a high sex drive and thus from becoming sexually promiscuous, highlights the patriarchal and discriminative nature of traditional Islamic Indonesian society toward women.
“There’s this idea that if a girl is circumcised, she will grow up to be a ‘good girl’ with a low sex drive,” she says.
“But this is a question of a woman’s reproductive rights, her right to enjoy sex.”
The government initially banned all forms of female circumcision in 2006. Four years later, however, it made an about-face and issued a regulation giving health workers the discretion to perform circumcisions as they saw fit.
The government argued that the regulation was needed because the all-out ban had led to large numbers of parents getting their daughters circumcised by unqualified shamans and traditional healers, thereby putting their children at high risk of medical complications.
The Health Ministry regulation defines permissible female circumcision as “an incision of the skin covering the front of the clitoris, without cutting the clitoris.”
But a 2003 study by the Population Council found that 22 percent of 1,307 female circumcision cases in the country were excisions, meaning that part of the clitoris or labia was removed. Of the rest, 49 percent involved incisions while only 28 percent were of the “symbolic” prick-and-clean type.
Ellin argues that as minimalist as it seems, the kind of circumcision allowed by the government is still unacceptable under internationally recognized standards on women’s rights.
In December, the United Nations passed a resolution banning female genital mutilation, which extends to the circumcision practiced in Indonesia.
Procedures such as pricking, piercing, incising, scraping, cauterization or burning that are carried out for non-medical purposes are categorized by the World Health Organization as mutilation along with practices that alter or remove any part of the genitals.
Back in Bandung, Lusi has come to realize that she did not need to have her daughter circumcised.
“I found out too late that what I did was a violation of my child’s rights,” she says.
Additional reporting from AFP