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Jakarta. Indonesia has one of the world's highest numbers of women and girls undergoing female genital mutilation and cutting, newly collected data from the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) shows.


The world's largest Muslim-majority country, together with Egypt and Ethiopia, accounts for half of the more than 200 million women and girls alive today who have fallen victim to the practice, Unicef says. The total number is considerably — about 70 million — higher than previous UN estimates.


About half of all Indonesian girls aged 11 and younger have undergone a form of FGM, the report says.


"Female genital mutilation differs across regions and cultures, with some forms involving life-threatening health risks," Unicef deputy executive director Geeta Rao Gupta was quoted as saying in a press statement released on Friday (05/02). "In every case FGM violates the rights of girls and women. We must all accelerate efforts — governments, health professionals, community leaders, parents and families — to eliminate the practice."


Unicef says in its report that there has been an overall global decline in the prevalence of FGM in the past decades, but the prospect is that this decline will not be enough to outpace population growth in countries like Indonesia.


"If current trends continue the number of girls and women subjected to FMG will increase significantly over the next 15 years," Unicef says.


FGM is banned in Indonesia, but it is performed in many parts of the country regardless. The Health Ministry has previously said it was aware of the negative consequences of FGM, but that the practice was primarily rooted in traditional beliefs.


As female circumcision is not a medical procedure, a senior Health Ministry official has argued, there is little the ministry can do in terms of rules and regulations.


According to Unicef, however, FGM in Indonesia is often done by trained medical professionals.


Lies Marcoes, an expert on Islam and gender issues, told the Jakarta Globe that it remains hard to find correct numbers on the prevalence of FGM, but that the government should step in to put an end to the practice.


"In Indonesia the trend is becoming stronger because of the Islamization of [our] culture and the commercialization of health services," she said, adding that there are various degrees of severity when it comes to FGM in Indonesia — all rooted in the assumption that women's sexuality needs to be controlled.


"Whatever its form, merely symbolic or by actually hurting [a girl], it has to be forbidden. No tolerance. This is not a religious law, and even if it were, there is no benefit for anybody," Lies said.  "The state should not give in to [people advocating] such primordial and harmful practices."


Girls and women worldwide affected

"Available data from large-scale representative surveys show that the practice of FGM/C is highly concentrated in a swath of countries from the Atlantic coast to the Horn of Africa, in areas of the Middle East such as Iraq and Yemen and in some countries in Asia like Indonesia," says the Unicef report, titled "Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting: A Global Concern."


"However," the report adds, "FGM/C is a human rights issue that affects girls and women worldwide. Evidence suggests that FGM/C exists in some places in South America such as Colombia, and elsewhere in the world including in India, Malaysia, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, with large variations in terms of the type performed, circumstances surrounding the practice and size of the affected population groups."


In a separate press statement, the executive director of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), Babatunde Osotimehin, and Unicef executive director Anthony Lake said FGM "is a violent practice, scarring girls for life — endangering their health, depriving them of their rights, and denying them the chance to reach their full potential. "


"There simply is no place for FGM in the future we are striving to create — a future where every girl will grow up able to experience her inherent dignity, human rights and equality by 2030," they added.


Sustainable Development Goals

The Indonesian Commission for Child Protection (KPAI) has called on the government to do more against FGM, starting by taking a clear stance on the matter.


KPAI commissioner Maria Ulfah Anshor previously pointed outthat FGM is a violation of Indonesia's child protection law as well as a number of human rights principles and international conventions that Indonesia has ratified.


Maria Ulfah said in September last year that the government should act quickly and decisively by providing “complete, honest and accurate information about opinions on and the effects of female circumcision, so that people can steer clear from this dangerous practice.”


Indonesia’s Minister for Women's Empowerment and Child Protection, Yohana Yambise was slated attend a high-level event at the United Nations in New York on Monday to mark International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, which falls on Feb. 6.


The eradication of FGM by 2030 is part of the Sustainable Development Goals that world leaders, including the Indonesian government, agreed to last year.


The fifth SDG, "Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls," specifically calls for the end of "all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere" and the elimination of "all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilations."


Din Syamsuddin, chairman of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) and former longtime chairman of Muhammadiyah, is amember of the Sustainable Development Solution Network (SDSN), a UN initiative, representing the Islamic world.


Adding to the confusion surrounding the government's stance on the practice in Indonesia, MUI in 2008 issued a controversial fatwa that condoned FGM.


The semi-official MUI is Indonesia's top Islamic advisory body.


Parents here mostly cite religious reasons for allowing the procedure, even as a growing number of religious leaders in Indonesia and elsewhere contend that there is no basis in Islam for FGM.


This article was originally published in the Jakarta Globe.