By Beh Lih Yi
JAKARTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Indonesia is embarking on a renewed campaign to end female genital mutilation (FGM), according to its women's minister Yohana Yembise, despite opposition from religious leaders who have stymied past efforts to combat a practice that is common.
Home to the world's largest Muslim population, Indonesia tried to ban FGM a decade ago but opposition from influential Islamic clerics has meant it is still widely practiced.
Almost half of Indonesian girls aged 11 and under have undergone some form of FGM, the United Nations' children agency, UNICEF, said in February, citing government statistics from Indonesia for the first time in a global study of FGM.
Together, Indonesia, Egypt and Ethiopia account for half of the estimated 200 million women and girls around the world who have been cut, according to UNICEF.
Yembise, Minister for Women's Empowerment and Child Protection, said the government has begun working with women's and religious groups to raise awareness of the dangers of FGM and a survey was underway to provide "scientific evidence" to support the government's goal to halt the practice.
"We try to approach the traditional and religious leaders to understand and to be aware that we have to end this female genital mutilation," Yembise told foreign journalists.
FGM, which involves the partial or total removal of a girl's external genitalia, is practiced across a swathe of African countries and in pockets of Asia and the Middle East.
FGM can cause a host of health problems. In some cases girls may bleed to death or die from infections. Others may suffer fatal childbirth complications later in life.
Rights groups in Indonesia have long called for a ban on FGM, while supporters of the practice argue that in Indonesia a less drastic form of cutting is usually carried out.
The UNICEF study showed that three in four Indonesian girls underwent FGM when they were under six months old, and the procedure was usually carried out by midwives.
After the government tried to ban FGM in 2006, the country's top Muslim clerical body issued an edict arguing that the practice was a required part of religious tradition.
Grata Endah Werdaningtyas, a senior foreign ministry official, said the new campaign would target families.
"We have to target the concerned groups like the parents because they are the one who decide (on children's circumcision) - not the doctors, not the religious leaders," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
But widespread superstition remains a hindrance, she said.
"In some parts of Indonesia, they say a girl has to be circumcised or else she can't cook rice properly, or she can't get a husband," Werdaningtyas said.
(Reporting by Beh Lih Yi @behlihyi, Editing by Jo Griffin; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)