June 3, 2015 By Lucian Vâlsan
There is a silent revolution going on in the world and only in recent years have we started to hear about it. Although there’s still a long way to go, the reality is that the world is slowly abandoning the genital mutilation of all children.
The genital mutilation rates of girls has always been a rather localized phenomenon and, in the last 20 years, the number of girls subjected to the practice has been consistently dropping in all the nations where it’s practiced except for Gambia1.
While the genital mutilation of females has been properly recognized for what it is, the same hasn’t been true for the genital mutilation of boys for a long period of time. But that is slowly and consistently changing across the planet – and this time for the better.
We say this time because there was another moment in history when the genital mutilation rates for children (both boys and girls) was consistently increasing – and that moment wasn’t that much time ago – it was in 1965 when the “tradition” of mutilating children started spreading from its contained communities. For girls, it was the expansion of Egyptian-minded framework of thinking while for boys it was the rapid expansion of the American “tradition” which most deeply affected South Korea.
So while for girls an entire library has been written, there’s less analysis on how much the mutilation rates for boys have been dropping. As such, we’ll focus on male genital mutilation in this article.
First things first
It is not the purpose of this article to debate the merits of any kind of genital mutilation on children. The position that non-consenting children (boys or girls) should be genitally mutilated in any way, shape or form is to be presumed a priori demented in and of itself.
It is also not the purpose of this article to discuss the merits of any kind of consensual genital mutilation that adult individuals might elect to perform on themselves. Individuals should be (and indeed are) free to do whatever they please with their bodies using their own resources. As such, this article will solely be focused on minors – and particularly minor boys.
In addition to proving that the rates of male genital mutilation are constantly and consistently dropping across the planet, it is also the purpose of this article to examine the cultural shifts in viewing the phenomenon.
The main limitation of this article is that the data available for some places is dubious to say the least. A second limitation is given by the fact that some estimations vary even within the same institution depending on the cultural bias of the author(s) doing the estimation.
But, regardless of the source, everyone agrees that the overwhelming majority of both men and women on this planet are not genitally mutilated. The most horrific estimates put the number of women being genitally mutilated at roughly 150 million (which is 4.2% of the global female population) while the most reliable data for men puts the proportion of genitally mutilated at a little under 30%2.
In other words, 70 to 71 men out of 100 and 95 to 96 women out of 100 are free from genital mutilation. And, as time goes by, the proportion of mutilation-free individuals is bound to increase.
With that being said, we shall examine the data and the attitudes in every area (Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe, Latin America, Oceania and North America), as well as provide some cultural background where available.
Asia (outside the Middle East)
Just like with almost all areas examined, Asia is not unitary when it comes to its attitudes on male genital mutilation.
Three categories of nations can be identified:
- Muslim nations (Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia, etc.) who do practice MGM
- Nations that don’t practice MGM as a norm (China, eastern part of Russia, India, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, etc.)
- Outliers that do practice MGM to some extent (Philippines, South Korea and Indonesia)
While one might be tempted to say that when it comes to Islam-dominated areas, the issue of MGM is a done-deal, that’s not exactly the case everywhere and every time.
For instance, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos have a total of roughly 300,000 Muslim people. Yet, even within this group, male genital mutilation (on children or adults) is statistically non-existent.
The reason for this is that circumcision is only symbolically performed on boys when they reach the age of 15. During a ceremony, a religious leader makes the gestures of circumcision using a wooden-knife3.
Notice that we placed Indonesia both in the Muslim group and the outliers group. That is a deliberate move because Indonesia, although it’s a country with an authoritarian government (at least by European standards) and in which over 88% of the population is Muslim, the prevalence of genital mutilation is a total outlier.
For starters, Indonesia is the place where genital mutilation is practiced both on boys and on girls during festivals and other ceremonial events4. Also, everyone admits that when genital mutilation of both girls and boys does occur in Indonesia, it is less severe than most of the other parts of the world5.
Indonesia is also the place with a high number of so-called Quranists who believe that genital mutilation is haram because it contradicts the established dogma in the Qu’ran which states that man was made perfect by God.
In addition to the Quranists, Indonesia is also home to a large non-Muslim minority which actively opposes genital mutilation and which also created a scandal a few years ago when the Jakarta cabinet tried to introduce mandatory male genital mutilation under the fictional nonsense that it reduces HIV. The government was forced to backtrack on their intentions6. In reality, Indonesia’s HIV problem is related to Indonesia’s drug addiction problem, but that’s a story for another day.
It should be noted that infant genital mutilation is virtually non-existent in most of Asia – regardless of whether it’s done for “religious reasons” or for other reasons. The overwhelming majority of instances occur between the ages of 10 and 157.
The most significant outlier though is South Korea.
In South Korea, Islam is virtually non-existent (under 0.2% of the population) and male genital mutilation actually runs counter to the longstanding Korean tradition of revering the natural body8. Before 1945, there were statistically zero circumcisions in South Korea. Statistically zero doesn’t mean there were none, but it does mean that it was so rare that it was way beneath 0.0001% in which case it is rounded to the nearest full number – in this case, zero (just like 7.0001% is rounded down as simply 7%).
Yet after 1945, the prevalence of circumcision started to increase to such an extent that in 2002 over 90% of high school boys were circumcised (but under 10% of men over the age of 709). It should also be noted that any information regarding circumcision (outside of “it has to be done because potato”) only started to emerge in South Korea in 199910.
The emergence of male genital mutilation in South Korea has already been established to be a direct consequence of the American military presence in the country following the Korean War11. The practice was then based mainly because of a widespread misconception of South Korean doctors about what phimosis is and its natural prevalence12.
Yet, between 2002 and 2012, male genital mutilation in South Korea has dropped by 10.5%13 and continues to drop at a rate of roughly 1.5% per year.
What makes South Korea special is that this drop is solely by individuals being persuaded of the harms of genital mutilation – and not by government or medical establishment action. This is mainly because South Korea never adopted the widespread neonatal genital mutilation (as it still is in some areas of the USA). And considering that Korean teens are more connected to the information than any other teens on the planet, the rates of genital mutilation will only keep on dropping.
The Middle East
With the notable exception of Israel, the Middle East is the area where the rates of genital mutilation of men have remained constant (and constantly high). This is not bound to change anytime soon given that the Quranist argument has little penetration in the area. To make things worse, the area is one that lacks medical facilities which make the practice even more dangerous than in places like the US (where at least 100 babies die annually as a result of “medical” genital mutilation).
In Israel however, progress is starting to occur and this can be noticed by the harsher and harsher rhetoric of the Jewish traditionalists on the topic. The traditionalist establishment is fully aware that it is bound to lose the battle once the genie is out of the bottle.
While 20 years ago the notion of intact Jewish men was utterly alien, by 2012, almost 5% of parents chose not to mutilate their sons14. As one can imagine, the issue is highly contentious in Israeli society not least because of the fact that it is irreversible and done in infancy (like the US) as opposed to the rest of the Middle East where the practice is usually done as a rite of passage somewhere around puberty.
The trend against male genital mutilation further accelerated when in 2013 it was reported that HIV rate skyrocketed between 2005 and 2013 – thus further quashing the utterly nonsensical claim that male genital mutilation “prevents” HIV.
It will be a long time until genital mutilation fades from Israel but the hardest steps have already been taken – namely the public questioning of it and the forming of a lobby through organizations such as the Israeli Association Against Genital Mutilation.
Africa is as diverse as it gets when it comes to the topic of genital mutilation.
The most interesting case is that of Republic of South Africa where the Children’s Act of 2005 outright bans the genital mutilation of girls and enshrines the unalienable right of boys to refuse genital mutilation, in addition to more-or-less banning it for boys under the age 1615. Enforcement of this law though is a different matter as some cultures within the country more or less mandate the genital mutilation of boys as a “rite of passage” – but that is slowly changing as members of those cultures start to question whether exposing their teenage boys to the risk of death is really such a good idea16.
In a country where those who object the ritual of genitally mutilating teenage boys are being severely beaten, those who believe in the bodily autonomy of children have quite a monumental task ahead of them. In addition to that, the number of deaths following the practice of male genital mutilation is so high that the issue is now a health crisis in the nation17.
As the junk science behind the HIV argument starts to get exposed and as the number of bodies pile up – South Africa will be an important front in the global battle against male genital mutilation in particular (just like Egypt and Gambia will be an important front in the battle against female genital mutilation).
Nevertheless, the majority of South African men are not mutilated18 and the medical establishment is increasingly outright against it as a routine practice19.
In other words, as the “traditional” practice fades away for reasons of obvious risks and the medical establishment becomes aware of the junk science de jour to justify the genital mutilation of boys and men, the overall rate continues to drop and will continue to drop for the foreseeable future.
Africa is also the only area/continent where the majority of men are mutilated – 4 out of 10 men being intact.
In Latin America, genital mutilation of girls is unheard of and genital mutilation of boys is universally low (as in under 5%).
There are two exceptions to this rule – the Rio de Janiero area in Brazil (13.5% of men are mutilated) and Mexico. When it comes to Mexico, an exact number is almost impossible to find but the most horrific estimates place the prevalence at around 30% – while the most common estimates vary between 10 and 15%.
In other words, 7 to 9 out of 10 Mexican men are intact.
Overall, in Latin America, 9 out of 10 men are intact and the 10th might be.
We were unable to find any Latin-American based report discussing circumcision (for or against). What we did find however were US-based websites preaching the “benefits” of male genital mutilation. The good news though is that it doesn’t work. There is no noticeable increase in rates of male genital mutilation anywhere in Latin America (not even in economically developed areas where access to the internet isn’t an issue).
Female genital mutilation is banned everywhere in Europe and male genital mutilation is bound to follow sooner than many would even dare to think at this point.
Except for tiny areas in the West Balkans (e.g. Albania and Bosnia-Herzegovina), male genital mutilation in Europe is so rare that there are countries where one might come up empty-handed even if purposefully looking for men who have been subjected to the procedure.
In recent years, the legality of male genital mutilation has been put into question in multiple nations of Europe – namely Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland, Norway, Sweden, Finland. In addition to these, the Council of Europe (which includes all nations of Europe except Belarus, Switzerland and the Vatican) adopting a resolution against ritual circumcision of any kind20.
The resolution concerning the children’s right to physical integrity was then followed by steps to further regulate it in several nations as well as a bitter political fight where appeals to emotion, non-sequiturs and other logical fallacies were used by the pro-mutilation lobby.
Unlike North America or Africa, the debate in Europe regarding male genital mutilation is not about medical “benefits” since every single respectable pediatrics and/or medical association in Europe outright opposes infant mutilation – with some (such as the Royal Dutch Medical Association) even openly engaging in anti-circumcision campaigns21.
So the pro-mutilation lobby is left to use one of Europe’s obsessions to at least appear legitimate: minority rights. Since “minority rights” has been used in many places in Europe to supersede the rights of the majority, it does indeed make tactical sense to try to use the same tactic to supersede the rights of children as well.
The political fight over the issue has brought allies that no one would have ever imagined to exist in a cultural dispute. The Jewish and the Muslim lobby joined hands to fight the establishment of children’s rights to bodily integrity and the joining even reached state level – with Israel superseding its tense relationship with Turkey in the name of keeping male genital mutilation legal in Europe22.
Some newspapers went as far as to say that Europe wants to ban Jewish boys23, spurious accusations of “racism” abounded24 and the number of Godwins pulled per minute went over 9000. Even officials within the Obama administration intervened in the public debate25 alleging that a ban on male genital mutilation would trigger a new “Jewish exodus”.
The problem with all of these is that they’re totally untrue. Most Jewish folks in Denmark for instance don’t circumcise their sons. Also, circumcision is de facto banned in present day northern Norway (we’ll explain in a bit) and yet that hasn’t triggered any exodus. It is totally understandable and praiseworthy to maintain some vigilance to issues concerning anti-Semitism but protecting innocent children from utterly unnecessary harm should and does indeed come first in more and more European countries.
The most interesting case is in Norway where male genital mutilation has become de facto forbidden in the northern part of the nation. As of January 1, 2015, male genital mutilation can only be performed in authorized sanitary units (hospitals) and is paid for by the regional Health Authorities. However, the hospitals in the jurisdiction of the Northern Norway Health Authority are now faced with an insurmountable “problem”: exactly zero doctors employed in those hospitals are willing to perform genital mutilation on minors26. And since the law can’t force the doctors to do it, parents who seek the procedure for their boys would have to travel long distances (i.e. to Trondheim) to get it, and most are unwilling to do it.
Norway had an average of 2000 circumcisions inflicted annually – but that number is already lower this month compared to last year’s similar period as more and more doctors simply refuse to perform the procedure.
Some argue that with the increase of the Muslim population (which not only immigrates into Europe but also has more children per family than the non-Muslim population), the rates of male genital mutilation may increase in Europe. Yet, so far, this hasn’t happen, also partly because doctors outright refuse to do it.
Sweden, for instance, has slightly more circumcisions (in absolute numbers) per year than Norway, even though it has a higher birthrate, bigger population and higher absolute number of Muslims27.
Also, just like in the case of Asia, there are quite a few Jewish and Muslim communities across Europe who have gradually moved away from circumcision.
The debate over the legality of male genital mutilation in Europe will undoubtedly continue for years to come but, in the meantime, stricter and stricter regulations over the procedure apply and the public pressure to get rid of it entirely shows no sign of decreasing. In some nations, such as Denmark, 3 out of 4 people support a complete ban on the procedure being done on children28.
Female genital mutilation is banned across the area and male genital mutilation is banned in taxpayer-funded hospitals in Australia29. Although 58% of the overall Australian male population has been through genital mutilation, more than two thirds of the men under the age of 30 are intact30 and the rates for infants continue to drop consistently. In 2003, a little under 13% of infant boys were being circumcised in Australia31 and in 2010 the Royal Australasian College of Physicians estimated that number had dropped to 10%.
With the rise of awareness in the last 5 years regarding the harmful effects of male genital mutilation, the rate in infants is bound to have dropped even further, much to the dismay of individuals who made a living from it.
In New Zealand, circumcision rates plummeted during 1970s from roughly 40% in 1972, to 26% in 1977, to 7% in 1991 and to minuscule rates in present day.
Given how much has already been written about male genital mutilation in North America, we’ll only limit ourselves to notice a few trends.
In the US, there are 10 states where circumcised men are a minority amongst the male population. In 5 of those states more than 3 out of 4 men are intact – namely Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada and Arizona. In Washington and Nevada, 9 out of 10 men are intact32. Of these 10 states, only one of them still funds circumcision through Medicaid33 indicating a correlation between de-funding the procedure through Medicaid and plummeting rates.
Of the States with a circumcision rate over 80%, only North Dakota doesn’t fund the procedure through Medicaid while in all the others, the procedure is covered through Medicaid.
The overall circumcision rate in the US is consistently dropping by 1% per year. It is also interesting to note that historically, the infant circumcision rate among Blacks has been consistently smaller when compared to whites until 1996 when they converged34.
In Canada, no provincial health insurance plan covers circumcision. A 2007 survey concluded that neonatal circumcision rate in Canada is a bit under 32%35.
In some areas, the infant mutilation rate was already minuscule over 10 years ago. In 2003, 1.1% of infant boys have been subjected to circumcision in Nova Scotia and in Newfoundland there were exactly zero circumcisions36. The rate in Newfoundland has been consistently around statistical zero for almost two decades.
While one can find small geographical areas where an increase in male genital mutilation applied on minors can be observed – the increase in those areas is marginal and far outweighed by the general global trend which is consistent, albeit very slow.
This article is not meant to proclaim victory, but it is meant to bring some perspective over the issue for both sides of the argument. Admittedly, the perspective doesn’t look great at all for the pro-mutilation lobby, and it is thus noted that the advocates of male genital mutilation are indeed on the wrong side of history.
Even if the rates of genital mutilation of minors freeze at today’s numbers, the overall prevalence of genital mutilation is still bound to decrease as older generations die off.
It is also great to notice that the advocates against genital mutilation have a largely consistent position – opposing the practice only on non-consenting minors and generally refraining from asking for total bans. We say “largely consistent” because there are exceptions. Just 6 months ago, a member of the British government demanded a total ban on any genital surgery of a female – including adult women who freely elect to have them done37.
Such positions can be found in some other corners of the feminist sector – particularly the corner of Simone de Beauvoir fashion, which tends to believe that women’s free choices are bad if they don’t conform with the feminist ideals.
Such positions are quite harmful for the victims of genital mutilation (both female and male) as they distract attention from real human rights travesties towards dubious (but nonetheless free and legitimate) choices made by some adults with agency.
The evidence presented in this article should also put an end to the utterly nonsensical claim that opposition to male genital mutilation is “an internet phenomenon”. If that were true, there wouldn’t be any consistent pattern of decrease in male genital mutilation across the planet – including in places where internet access is complicated or impossible.
Although it was not the purpose of this article, it should be noted that the issue transcends politics (including in Europe where the issue is almost entirely political). There are pro-infant mutilation libertarians, anti-mutilation rightists, pro-mutilation leftists, and everything in between. This means that for the advancement of mankind’s majority position, all one has to do is to make sure (s)he delivers the right arguments to the right group of people.
In conclusion – there is room for optimism. Almost all great achievements in the last century came rather silently as the world has gotten better and better, despite the impression that things are getting worse.
1 Charlotte Feldman-Jacobs and Donna Clifton. – Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting: Data and Trends – Update 2014, Population Reference Bureau, 2014, p. 7 – http://www.prb.org/pdf14/fgm-wallchart2014.pdf (accessed on May 31, 2015)
2 Male circumcision: global trends and determinants of prevalence, safety and acceptability, IWHO Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data, 2007, p. 7 – http://whqlibdoc.who.int/publications/2007/9789241596169_eng.pdf (accessed on May 31, 2015)
3 Nick Ray – Vietnam Cambodia Laos & the Greater Mekong (Multi Country Travel Guide), Lonely Planet, 2009, p. 69
4 *** – Female circumcision not mutilation: Jakarta, Japan Times, published on March 25, 2013 – http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2013/03/25/asia-pacific/social-issues-asia-pacific/female-circumcision-not-mutilation-jakarta/#.VW0YVZXePVI (accessed on May 31, 2015)
5 Sara Corbett – A cutting tradition, New York Times, published on January 20, 2008 – http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/20/magazine/20circumcision-t.html
6 *** – INDONESIA: Government denies plans for mandatory male circumcision in Papua, IRIN Asia, published on February 20, 2012 – http://www.irinnews.org/report/94901/indonesia-government-denies-plans-for-mandatory-male-circumcision-in-papua
7 R. Gopal – Religion, culture and the male cut in Asia. Exchange on HIV/AIDS, sexuality and gender, 2009; Kit Publishers, vol. 3, p. 14-15
8 M.G. Pang and D.S. Kim – Extraordinarily high rates of male circumcision in South Korea: history and underlying causes, GenDix, Inc., and Institute of Reproductive Medicine and Population and School of Physics, Seoul National University, BJU International, 2002, vol. 89, p. 48-54
10 DaiSik Kim, Sung-Ae Koo and Myung-Geol Pang – Decline in male circumcision in South Korea, BMC Public Health, 2012, p. 5 – http://www.biomedcentral.com/content/pdf/1471-2458-12-1067.pdf
11 J.H. Ku, M.E. Kim, N.K. Lee, Y.H. Park – Circumcision practice patterns in South Korea: community based survey, Pubmed, Sex Transm Infect, 2003, p. 65-67 – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1744613/pdf/v079p00065.pdf
12 Pang – Extraordinarily high