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FGM slowing down ? The UN asserts it, the Indonesian case contradicts it

15 juin 2013

par Mireille Vallette, journaliste indépendante

The UN communication with regard to sexual mutilations is deceitful. It underestimates the number of excised girls, ignores the reality of excisors countries such as Indonesia, and maintains strict taboo of the religions role. Without it, reality would appear naked : some 300 mio Muslims are concerned by excision and without an active intervention of religious leaders, the scourge will not disappear.

Investigation and call for a mobilization !

Unicef provides annually the status about the situation of female genital mutilation.1) It is estimated that some 130 million women worldwide have endured it and that three million girls are subject annually to the circumciser’s knife or to any other kind of mutilation. Figures are far below reality.

Unicef also announced that these mutilations are decreasing everywhere. It is also false : in some countries, the scourge increases. The agency also asserts that in 25 years, mutilations will have disappeared. A dream...

The implicit assumption of these statistics is that excising countries are known and identified. Howewer, only Africa (and Yemen) fall into this accounting. Does only Africa excise ? No, but to collect representative data and integrate them, Unicef needs the approval of the governments.

What happens in the Middle East and Southeast Asia ? About the first, we do not know much and the second contradicts the findings of Unicef. In Indonesia and Malaysia, the feminine genital mutilations (FGM) are common, and rising. Moreover, they contribute to the increasing medicalization denounced by the WHO in other countries.

UNICEF increases its estimation by half

The silence of the UN may once again lead to a painful revision. In the mid-2000s, they had to swallow a snake size : a comprehensive survey of its services concluded that circumcised girls each year were not two million as stated previously, but three ! 50% more, a news discreetly reported. At this time, the end of the beam was planned for 2010.2)

This figure of three million is already questionable. Taking into account the number of female births in African countries every year and choosing the lowest assumption among three various surveys, we get a quite different result : 5,3 million. If we include Indonesia with a very low hypothesis (50% mutilated girls), this number reaches 6,3 million !

And it is not all. In 2006, an Austro-German NGO Wadi, announced that circumcision is widely practiced in Iraqi Kurdistan, where some 70% of women undergo mutilations. Other ethnic groups in the country are concerned. Six years later, Iraq is still not included in the statistics of Unicef : “This is currently under review by the Government of Iraq. We cannot comment on the timeline”, explains us Cody Donahue, a specialist in child protection at Unicef headquarters, New York.

We know that many other countries excise, but we do not know the extent. This is the case of the following countries : Iran, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Tajikistan, Maldives, Thailand, Malaysia, Pakistan, India and, said an employee of Wadi in a special bulletin of the United Nations in 2013, “in a very organized and systematic way Indonesia.”4)

According to two other employees of the NGO Wadi, “the fact that direct medical reports are available for either Saudi Arabia or any other country in the region does not mean that FGM are absent, but only that these companies are not free enough to enable the study of such problems ...”5)

So, three million, really ? Cody Donahue recognizes diplomatically : "We agree it is probably underestimated, but cannot correct for it without the required information." A new comprehensive survey and estimation have to be published soon.

Indonesia mutilates on a large scale and more

There are dumb and developing countries where the debate on FGM is in full swing without reaching the ears of Unicef. That is the case of Malaysia and Indonesia. The latter is the largest Muslim country with 240 millions inhabitants. Not only FGM are widespread, but they are increasing because of powerful religious groups that promote them.

In 2003, a survey by the Population Council was published, “Female circumcision in Indonesia” (the term circumcision is widely used to balance the male circumcision).6) It was conducted among eight major ethnic groups from east to west of the archipelago, and almost all the 1’700 involved women had undergone FGM. 

Some 28% of these women had suffered “symbolic” practices, which would be free of sequel. The unfortunate clitoris can be scratched, rubbed, stitched, stretched, burned, pierced ... Symbolic or not, these procedures are clearly classified by WHO as mutilations.

Other surveyed women had experienced a more invasive form. "... Direct observation of procedures showed that FC practice in Indonesia certainly involves pain and real genital cutting in about three-quarters of cases."

Furthermore, like many other nations that mutilate, a growing medicalization of FGM has begun in various parts of the country. The "operation" is usually performed by midwives who integrate it into the package delivery services with vaccinations and ear piercing. The trend is worrisome ; the study indicates that midwives tend to perform more invasive forms such as incisions and excisions.

An extensive survey by the University Yarsi Java, published in 2009, confirms most of these findings, as well as Amnesty International report published in 2010.

Since 2010, mutilations have been officially authorized

In June 2005, Azrul Azwar, General Director for Health Affairs in the country, confirmed that "female circumcision" was widely practiced in the country. That same year, the government prepared a decree banning medical personnel to practice.7)

In 2006, the decree appeared without further action. The Ulema Council replicated by a fatwa authorizing the practice, while declaring it non-mandatory. In 2010, the organization Nadhlatul Ulama (NU) acknowledged to be moderate approved the mutilations while advising against "cutting too much." It represents 40 million Muslims. Its women’s wing protests and calls for the elimination of FGM.

In 2010, the government bowed to wishes of religious. A regulation was published, which allows healthcare professionals to practice FGM, also without cutting. The pretext is that ban would encourage parents to contact traditional healers. The following year, more than 170 local and international NGOs protested against this situation and the publication of official documents explaining how to mutilate girls.

May 31, 2012, France2 broadcast a report of Envoyé spécial entitled “Islam. Excision in Indonesia the burden of a tradition.” The team went to Bandung where every year on the anniversary of the death of Muhammad, several hundred girls are excised on the control school.

The financial interest grows, maternity hospitals encourage the practice even in areas where they were rare. The numerous opponents cannot measure up against the religious, whose influence is huge in the population… and among the politicians.

A problem that increases fast

November 18, 2012, the journalist Abigail Haworth decided to release an article about the ceremony of Bandung.8) In 2006, she had attended a collective excision, but anti-FGM activists had convinced her to shut up so as not to obstruct their action. The journalist observes : “Yet far from scaling down, the problem of FGM in Indonesia has escalated sharply.”

The country sticks to his modern image. Its authorities and religious insist on the fact that "their" mutilations can not be assimilated with African practices. The reality is that on the 17,000 islands of the archipelago, it is impossible to know the extent of the evil. It is certain in any case that excisions are numerous and that their consequences are serious.

Everywhere, the motive invoked by mothers to go on with this tradition is Islam. The reasons are mainly the reduction of unbridled libido and purification, as the girls’ genitals are “dirty”.

In January this year, Ma’ruf Amin, Chairman of Indonesian Ulema Council, the highest Islamic authority and the most representative, declared that FGM is a “morally recommended practice with a moral foundation” which is part of “human rights”. They practice “by cutting the part that covers the clitoris”. The perspective of a ban by the authorities is fiercely fought by the religious leaders.9)

Given this situation, how can Unicef not quote Indonesia as a disturbing scope of spread of scourge ? “There are currently no nationally representative data”, answers Cody Donahue. And anyway, “the investigations are the result of negotiations between the government and the agencies that implement them”.

We can therefore read the following lines in the communicate released by Unicef last February : "Cases have been documented in the Middle East, India, Colombia and Indonesia."
Cases ?

Malaysia also

Malaysia (30 million inhabitants, 18 Muslims) is not mentioned in this release. However, the situation is very similar to that in Indonesia, and the battle between conservative religious and anti-FGM rages. The practice is widespread and the prevalence is increasing.

No serious progress without support of Muslim leaders

Radical Islam is growing in the Muslim sphere. The regression of manners that follows not only targets women primarily, but also promotes the extension of these intolerable practices.

Out of thirteen countries that circumcise more than 70% of their girls, seven are overwhelmingly Muslim. This is the case of Egypt, Mali, Somalia, Mauritania, northen Sudan, Djibouti and Gambia. That is over 140 million people.

The other six great excisors are multireligious : Ethiopia (100 million) includes an Orthodox and Protestant majority but the Muslim areas excise more than the others. The other high-prevalence countries are Eritrea, Guinea (half Muslim, half Animist), Sierra Leone (60% Islam, 30% Animist) Burkina Faso (60% Muslim) and Guinea Bissau.

All excisor countries include Muslim communities. We can add to the above 140 million, populations gathering 45-50 million in multi-religious countries and, being very careful, 110 million Indonesian and Malaysian citizens (half the population). We take no risk estimating that worldwide, there is about 300 million followers of Mohammed where girls are mutilated. All are convinced that it is required by their religion. An accurate estimation based on this religious criteria is still a taboo.

This predominance is confirmed by the composition of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) : among the 35 countries that excise, 32 are part of this unique and powerful religious lobby in the UN (Iraq, Indonesia and Malaysia included).

Christians and Animists, who can not claim a religious precept, often have fanciful ideas about the consequences of a non-excision. That is why education and information are effective. In Muslim ethnics and Islamic countries, on the opposite, mutilations can be justified by theology.10) The Koran says nothing about, but three hadiths (their authenticity is disputed) indicate that Muhammad approved the excision. Countless imams and scholars refer to it. But even allowed by Muhammad, can Muslims pretend they can legitimately pursue such violence ?

In any case it is inconceivable that the mutilations will seriously and quickly diminish without the mobilization of this religious establishment. This mobilization would be efficient as mothers suffer from this torture inflicted to their daughters and as a large number of men would be ready to give it up.

So far, we have only heard a few general statements supporting the anti-mutilation resolutions in international conferences. But no major action has been started by the leaders and their institutions (Al-Azhar University, the Ulemas Council, OIC, ISESCO, etc.).

Meanwhile, on the ground, the UN agencies and the NGO conduct a courageous, but slow, complicated and expensive struggle to convince opinion leaders (including imams and ulemas) and the population to officially declare their village “free of excision”. In the past four years, some 10’000 villages did it, that represent 8 million inhabitants… out of several hundred millions.

The role of Islam in the non-respect of basic rights of girls must be publicly stated to push its leaders to act. It is time. It is also time for the UN and its subsidiaries to speak the truth and recognize that the reality is much worse than they have said till now.

Mireille Vallette (with the collaboration of Guillaume Aguettant)

- French version.


1. Several UN agencies join forces to fight excision. We mention only Unicef to simplify reading and because it is the one that leads the annual communication exercise on 6th February, day of “Mutilations Zero tolerance”.
3. Note that the press UNICEF this year no longer speak of 3 million girls circumcised each year, but "30 million under 15 who may be exposed." Is this a preparation for a new estimation ?
4. Arvid Vormann, bulletin UN Special, february 2013, p.27
5. Thomas von der Osten-Sacken and Thomas Uwer, Is Female Genital Mutilation an Islamic Problem ? Middle East Quarterly, 2007,
9. Pour l’ensemble des événements, voir aussi et

Sisyphe, June 15, 2013

Mireille Vallette, journaliste indépendante

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