Forget about the conventional wisdom that female genital mutilation, or FGM, rarely takes place outside of Africa and the Middle East. Recalibrate that to 30 countries on several continents, according to a new statistical analysis by UNICEF that calculates that at least 200 million females today have undergone some form of the procedure.
About 60 million of affected females come from one country: Indonesia, where about half of the girls age 11 and below have undergone the practice. Yet this is the first time that Indonesia has been included in UNICEF data. We asked Tanya Sukhija, program officer with Equality Now, an organization that supports the rights of women and girls, about FGM in Indonesia and around the world. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
In light of the high numbers in Indonesia, why wasn’t it included before?
The Population Council [a research and programmatic group] had conducted a study in Indonesia in 2003, but that is outdated. This is the first time the government collected the information.
I think they are seeing a lot of international pressure to take the issue seriously.
Collecting the data is a great step forward in Indonesia and around the world.
What do the numbers — 70 million more worldwide in 2016 than in 2014 — tell us?
The data shows that this really is a huge problem and action is needed to curtail it. Beyond the 60 million added from Indonesia, the additional 10 million comes from population growth. Growing populations mean that if we do not do more to end the practice, the numbers will also grow.
Is FGM ongoing in other countries not accounted for in the latest UNICEF report?
There are many other places where the data is not robust. There is one particular community in India, the Dawoodi Bohra, that does practice FGM — but without the data we don’t know the extent. This is just one example. There have been reports in Europe, Australia, North America, South America. This is really a global issue.
Does the FGM practice in Indonesia differ from elsewhere?
There are definitely variations in the way it is performed among and within countries.
But regardless of the type, it is all considered female genital mutilation. It can result in being more susceptible to infections after the procedure, to obstetrical complications, pain during intercourse and childbirth and mental health consequences.
What needs to be done to stop the practice?
We need laws in place anywhere that girls are affected. Law is the foundation for protection of any human rights of women and girls. In Indonesia, we are working with our partner there, Kalyanamitra calling for a clear law criminalizing FGM and also anyone who practices it.
Medicalization of the procedure [allowing medical personnel to perform it] is also problematic. It lends it legitimacy. In 2010, the Indonesia government authorized medical personnel to do this. Under international pressure the [government] revoked that in 2014. The new regulation says instead that the procedure should be done with regard to the health and safety of the girl. It isn’t much better but it shows that they are making changes, even though they are not going far enough.
Are there programs that have succeeded in other countries?
I would point to Kenya as an example: They have a law banning FGM, and they are also doing a lot to implement it. They have an anti-FGM board, a government body charged with making sure the law is followed, and with education and raising awareness [of the issue].
They also have a special unit in their public prosecutions office to investigate and prosecute FGM cases, and prosecutors who are specially trained to pursue such cases. There are also a number of organizations in Kenya helping girls trying to escape FGM, by providing shelters, for instance, and working with local, traditional and religious leaders. People also use alternative rites of passage ceremonies, celebrating reaching puberty not with cutting but with rituals. This highlights the need for having a law as well as other mechanisms to support the law.
The bottom line is that we need laws in place anywhere that girls are affected, as well as support and education. FGM is not just an African problem. This is an international issue.