FGM is the total or partial removal of external female genitalia. In some cases, it involves the stitching of the vagina or the pricking of the clitoris. Forms and customs vary around the world.
More than 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone FGM – most are cut before they turn 15 years old, according to the World Health Organisation.
— UN Women AsiaPacific (@unwomenasia) December 8, 2017
Internationally, this practice is condemned. In 1994, 173 countries backed a United Nations conference report calling FGM a “violation of basic rights and a major lifelong risk to women’s health” that governments should “prohibit and urgently stop the practice…wherever it exists”.
Most of the efforts to eradicate FGM following this have focused on Africa, despite the ritual being widespread in Asia as well.
Here are five things you should know about how FGM affects the region:
1. FGM exists even in rich countries
There are 27 African countries where FGM is prevalent. In Asia, anti-FGM group Orchid Project’s report found evidence of the ritual in countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Pakistan and Thailand. Various communities in the Middle East have FGM customs as well – Egypt and Yemen are among the most impacted ones.
While FGM is usually associated with rural villages and poorer countries, it quietly happens in rich, cosmopolitan nations like Singapore and Brunei as well.
In Singapore, its minority Malay Muslims community observe this procedure, which is endorsed by the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore as part of the Islamic tradition.
2. FGM is rising in Southeast Asia
As conservative attitudes surge throughout the region, so did FGM prevalence among its Muslim communities, activists suggest. A 2012 study found 93.9 percent of Muslim women surveyed had been circumcised, while in Indonesia, 86 and 100 percent of teenage girls from six provinces surveyed had undergone the procedure.
Of the four types of FGM defined by the WHO – from a less invasive pinprick to full clitoris removal – three types are observed in Malaysia and Indonesia, mainly on girls aged less than six.
“This is very much a struggle for the Muslim community to solidify its identity within a very diverse society,” Malaysian human rights activist Azrul Mohd Khalib said, as quoted by PRI. “Muslims are using women’s bodies to assert a certain moral authority and credibility in their interactions with other religions and ethnicities.”
3. Activism is still focused on Africa while the problem remains untackled in Asia.
The UN plans to eradicate FGM by 2030, but campaigners are citing the lack of data in Asia to be a serious obstacle to reaching this goal.
UN children’s agency Unicef’s statistics of how FGM affects 200 million women worldwide are largely restricted to 30 countries, most of which are in sub-Saharan Africa, despite reports of the ritual in many Asian countries. Lack of data means the global scope of the problem remains unknown.
Survivors in Asian countries also suffer from less resource and advocacy support, as Asia also falls outside the remit of the UNFPA-UNICEF Joint Programme to Accelerate the Abandonment of FGM/C.
4. Opinions differ on how best to handle FGM.
Not everyone agrees with the zero tolerance approach. Religious bodies have pushed the Indonesian government to allow some forms of FGM so long as they are performed by licensed doctors, nurses or midwives and abiding by government guidelines.
— American Circumcision (@circmovie) January 5, 2018
Women who have gone through the procedure support it, too, be it as a symbol of communal identity or as a rite of passage for girls to turn into “whole women”.
Another dimension of the debate is consent. The anti-FGM side argues babies and children are not capable of giving consent.
“We start trying to control women’s bodies at infancy. It’s the first sign to a child that her body is not hers, it’s the community’s,” said Filzah, who is a project coordinator at gender equality rights group Aware.
“An infant at two weeks wouldn’t know anything at all. How could she possibly consent to anything?”