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OCTOBER 2, 2015

Words: Henry Omware

When she returned, she found that the baby’s penis had been chopped off in a botched circumcision.

Some events startle because they are unthinkable. A botched circumcision is one of such incident as happened when Rosette Katushabe left her six month old baby boy under the care of a maid one fine day in September in Fort Portal Uganda.  When she returned, she found that the baby’s penis had been chopped off in a botched circumcision. According to Uganda’s Daily Monitor, the maid said that “one of the aunts had come with a circumciser who carried out the exercise” leaving the child bleeding and writhing in pain. To add insult to the injury, consent of the baby’s mother was reportedly not sought.

Baby circumcised

The disturbing news brought to light, a practice that transcends religion, culture, politics and medicine across several continents. Circumcision has been practiced for thousands of years. It serves as a rite of passage and the junction in the journey from boyhood to adulthood. Some 30% of the men around the globe get circumcised however the medical benefits have always remained controversial and subject to debate. Increasingly, the safety of the procedure is coming under the spotlight.

Just over a year ago 30 boys died and 300 were hospitalized in the Eastern Cape, South Africa following a botched circumcision raising a great deal of concern and prompting calls for the discontinuation of the cultural practice.  The African National Congress party called for the modernization of the ancient ritual questioning the competence of its current practitioners. In March 2015, a South African medical team from Stellenbosch University performed world’s first successful penile transplant in a nine hour surgery, drawing worldwide attention to the plight of the victims of botched circumcisions.

Cultural initiation practices involve physical challenges, deprivation of food, water and in some cases, total isolation.  Doctors said that “most of the initiates had died from blood loss, exhaustion, infections and hypothermia after the young bodies” – many as young as twelve, had been pushed beyond their limits. Such torturous initiation practices are hardly confined to Southern Africa. Initiation process carried out by communities in Kenya are also characterized dangerous brand of negative masculinity of no pain, no gain.

The schism between medicine and cultural practices has never been clearer. Whereas relief of human suffering is the most important role of healthcare providers, traditional practices and initiations use the rationale of endurance of intense pain as proof of manhood.

This perhaps is the reason why many able parents prefer to take their boys for hospital operations, conducted in hygienic conditions to avoid the dangers and perils of traditional circumcision gone wrong.

Circumcision SA

Every year in August some 5000 youths from the Bukusu tribe in Bungoma County in Kenya are rounded up, taken to the forest, where they are ritually circumcised as has been done for eons. In 2014, a 13 year old boy suffered a penile amputation and the real dangers of traditional rites were brought to light.   The  County government response was to conduct a training session for traditional circumcisers but old habits perpetuated by deep rooted cultural beliefs, do not change easily.

During the season of circumcision any man deemed as not circumcised can be forcefully cut. A jilted ex-wife revealed to community members that her 39 year old ex-husband had never gone through circumcision, upon which the man was frog-marched to a crowded market and forcefully cut in front of hundreds of cheering people. The real danger during such frenzy is that little effort is made to look for an experienced circumciser and any man brandishing pen knife can step out of the crowd claiming expertise.

It came to surface the other day that even within communities that traditionally circumcise men,many avoid the procedure, managing to hiding their true ‘status’ until someone blows their cover. Twelve men were ambushed and forcefully circumcised in Kenya’s Central Province after their wives reported that their husbands were undone lending credence to widely held suspicion that some of the most virulent proponents of the cultural practice are actually undone. Around the same month, a group of 50 men mainly from the Northern Kenya’s Turkana community sought refuge at a Police Station in Bungoma for fear of being circumcised forcefully. Yet in another episode, early last year, police at Eldoret in Kenya’s Rift Valley launched a manhunt for six men. The men on the run were alleged to have forcefully circumcised a man. The complainant went on to say that more than six men had been put through a similar ordeal, but were afraid to report.

In 1442, a papal bill placed by the Roman Catholic Church stated that male circumcision was unnecessary.

The Luo who live along the shores of Lake Victoria in Kenya’s Nyanza Province, have in recent years adopted circumcision for medical reasons.  In the past, only followers of Nomiya Church in Nyanza founded in 1907 practiced circumcision.Their reasoning was based on the Bible’s Leviticus Chapter 12. But in the recent years, many young and old Luo men have been flocking to medical facilities, responding to a call by political leaders following findings of research studies that AIDS was more prevalent in areas where men were not circumcised.

With major exceptions of Muslims – the largest religious group that practices male circumcision, and Judaism, religion tends not to be a determinant. Muslims practice circumcision as a confirmation of their relationship with God, even though circumcision is not mentioned in the Koran. The Coptic Christians in Egypt and the Ethiopian Orthordox Church who practice two of the oldest surviving forms of Christianity have retained many features of early Christianity including circumcision. In 1442, a papal bill placed by the Roman Catholic Church stated that male circumcision was unnecessary. Many churches view circumcision in the context of Paul’s statement in Galatians: “Circumcision does not aid either salvation or sanctification in Christ, the principle of circumcision in heart is the heart of the matter”.

Even though the bible has its contradictions, the numbers of people opting for circumcision is on the decline globally. About 30% of the men are cut, going by the latest figures released by Circumcision Resource Centre.  In 2013, Time Magazine carried an insightful report on the decline of circumcision of babies in 30 years in the US.  “In  1979, two thirds of the boy in the west underwent hospital circumcision after birth but by 2010 that percentage had dropped to around  58%”. On a worldwide scale the practice has fallen to a vanishing point in Europe, Non Muslim Asia,(that includes India and China), the Far East, Australia and South America.

At the same time, the number of people including doctors and nurses opposed to it is growing. Many medical practitioners believe that: “being born a male does not require a surgical correction”, arguing that “circumcision violates the major principle of medical practice: do no harm.” The doctors, -mainly Pediatricians and nurses, have organized a group Doctors Opposing Circumcision (DOC) and Nurses for the Rights of the Child. They are saying that “Pediatric health care providers have legal and ethical obligations to their child patient to render competent medical care based on what their patient needs and not what somebody else expresses”, views endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatricians, albeit partially.

Genital autonomy is a human right

Critics of circumcision say that it does not cure any disease, injury or any other health problems and since there is no urgency to it, it should wait until the child is old enough to make decision himself. One of the groups advocating this trend of thought is the US based National Organization for Restoring Men (NORM). NORM is dedicated to providing a safe space for circumcised men to share their concerns without being ridiculed for their desire to be intact and whole again. NORM is an affiliate of Foreskin Restoration group in Facebook for men who were deprived of the birth right of an intact body during childhood.

Other groups such as Libertarians view the practice as unacceptable violation of the autonomy and rights of the individual. This growing movement is seeking ways to have the practice banned on basis that governments have legitimate roles in preventing persons from harming others. They argue that the practice is “horrifying, barbaric and evil and ought to be prohibited by law”. In Kenya, we have Intact Kenya, whose slogan is that “genital autonomy is a human right”.

While circumcision is a form of trauma for others, it is a source of pride for many who believe their lives are unworthy of dignity on account of it.

Old myths and deep cultural practices may be with us for a long time, but Katushabe’s baby now joins the list of innocent children whose rights have been violated because many African States have abdicated their responsibilities to ‘provide protection and care for the well being of a child’ in accordance to the Convention on the Rights of a Child adopted by the United Nations General assembly.

His body, his choice.

 Henry Omware, is a former Kenyan magazine publisher and previously, a newspaper correspondent in Germany. He is a Human Rights activist and a regular commentator on issues affecting vulnerable groups worldwide.