Human Rights vs. Defense Mechanisms

Via David Wilton at Male Circumcision and HIV, here’s an excellent report by Russia Today that looks at unnecessary surgery and experimentation on intersexed children in the U.S.

The connection with the unquestionable human rights of male children is obvious, but this issue stands on its own. Medical need is the only valid justification for surgical intervention in children. Being different is not enough. As long as the child is healthy, parents and physicians must refrain from forcing conformity. Let the child decide.

International FGM Zero Tolerance Day

Today is International FGM Zero Tolerance Day. As its name suggests, Choose Intact aims to help end non-therapeutic genital cutting on any non-consenting individual, which is when genital cutting becomes genital mutilation. Our primary focus is from an American view against male circumcision, but gender is irrelevant in this struggle. Even though I disagree with typical refusal to accept the moral equivalence, I support this day as a way to make the daily effort better known.

Before going further, I’ll reiterate one standard point. Non-therapeutic genital cutting (i.e. mutilation) is ethically wrong, whether it’s forced on girls or boys. There is no distinction in the analysis of whether or not it is a violation of the child’s bodily integrity and autonomy, since mutilation is mutilation. However, it’s also clear that the common forms of FGM are more severe than the common form of male circumcision. Often, the cutting is significantly more severe. This distinction is valid. Fighting against both is not an attempt to ignore this or pretend that facts are different. The core issue, regardless of the damage inflicted, involves human rights. These rights aren’t conditional based on the extent of damage or the intent behind its imposition.

To promote International FGM Zero Tolerance Day, I want to focus on this brief interview with Sister Fa (Fatou Diatta), a musician from Senegal who is a victim of genital mutilation. Her unfortunate story is instructive because it highlights the complexity in how mutilation is practiced and the common misconceptions that lead to erroneous distinctions in genital mutilation based on gender. From the interview:

Rebellion is in the words. You are dealing with issues such as forced marriage, female genital mutilation. How important is this for you?
“It’s more than important. But my struggle is not against Female Genital Mutilation (FGM, ed.). Me, I do not even use the word “mutilation,” because mutilate means cutting with the intention to hurt. I say ‘cutting’. I’m campaigning so that people would know that it is important that we can educate a child without going through certain practices that may harm his/her health. I’ve been a victim of this practice and I know its effect. It hurts.”

The word mutilation has problems because it carries a perception that the outcome was the intent. I prefer accuracy in words, and mutilation is accurate, but there’s a level of deference to marketing necessary surrounding this issue. The common misunderstanding when the topic is male circumcision and mutilation is used is that the boy’s parents intended to mutilate him, or that they forced circumcision on him maliciously. That is not the case, obviously. Parents don’t have that intent, but intent isn’t tied to outcome for genital cutting. We need to find a way to communicate that. Ms. Diatta’s approach may not satisfy our (unproductive) need to feel righteous. That’s okay because moral victories don’t stop unnecessary genital cutting.

But how big is the issue of female circumcision and forced marriage in Senegal?
“In my village, 89 percent of girls are circumcised. If you are not, you’re marginalized. You cannot get married, you cannot cook for anyone. It is a criterion for a good marriage. You have to be circumcised. Even if your mother does not like it, she has to do it. To protect yourself against what? Against your own society.”

“There are people who confuse things, especially Westerners. They think it’s a barbaric act. That it is a mutilation. That it is terrible for a mother to mutilate her own child. It is not the case! It is one of the reasons for the failure of this communication to really try to erase this practice in my country.”

I think it’s useful to recognize here that some of the societal perceptions she cites are similar in logic to the cultural rationales given for male circumcision. It’s about inclusion more than anything. We recognize the fallacy of cutting girls for this type of reason. There’s no reason to exempt cutting of boys for the same type of reason(s).

The second paragraph is the key here. It took me a few reads to grasp her meaning. She’s saying the culture doesn’t need to change, that ideals and values can still be instilled. The only change would be to drop the cutting. It’s the same concept as transitioning from a brit milah to a brit shalom. Respect for tradition is good and can be altered just enough to maintain a cultural connection while respecting the child’s rights. Again, even though it feels good to denounce as strongly as possible, Ms. Diatta is on the right path.

This movie starring Sister Fa is powerful in showing her resolve and methods. It also instructs on the complexity of FGM and how and why it’s carried out.

The movie is worth your time. A few quotes from Sister Fa from the movie:

  • It was my mother who did it to me. Even today I don’t understand why.
  • Mothers don’t do it because they are malicious. It’s a contradiction.
  • They want to protect their children against a society which could marginalise them.

From Ibrahima Diatta, Sister Fa’s father:

“You know in our African societies and especially in the Diola Ethnie, the woman has her affairs where she doesn’t have to consult her husband. So when it was the matter to cut Fatou I didn’t know about it. I was just informed that she got cut.”

Yes, males impose FGM on girls. Yes, it’s done to affect/destroy sexual pleasure. But these aren’t exclusive. Again, the issue is more complicated. As these (anecdotal) quotes suggest, women also impose FGM on girls. It is also done to conform rather than destroy, even if the latter is likely or inevitable. There are important, undeniable similarities between female and male genital cutting that must be recognized, even when these facts challenge what society wants to believe. Western values have (mostly) settled the moral question of female genital cutting. We err when we endorse extraneous aspects of male genital cutting and imagine that these are somehow different, despite sufficient evidence to the contrary.

The cultural, “medical”, and religious considerations granted to parents for boys are rejected for girls, as they should be. Today, I hope we can begin to cease imagining differences that don’t exist. Today is about respecting the rights of girls. That is a noble cause. It will be articulated better as we begin recognizing an equal human right to be free from unnecessary genital cutting.

Compare and Contrast

Consider this first paragraph:

More men are turning up for Voluntary Medical Male Circumcision in Nyanza following a rapid campaign, latest study has shown.

Compare it to this first paragraph:

Consolata Nyansu, 11, is a girl in distress following pressure from her family to face the circumciser’s knife.

These two articles are from the same news¹ source, separated by a little more than two weeks. The narrative never changes. Males volunteer to undergo genital cutting. Females are forced to undergo genital cutting. Yet, when looking closer, this narrative predictably fails. (emphasis added)

“With last year’s [Rapid Results Initiative], we have now reached almost 230,450 men and boys with VMMC services,” [Nyanza PC Francis] Mutie said.

So it’s not all men volunteering. The article offers this explanation:

[Nyanza Provincial Director of Public Health Jackson] Kioko also said the initiative had also succeeded in reaching its target age group — men older than 15 — who can benefit most from male circumcision for HIV prevention. About 84 per cent of the clients were in this age group.

Fifteen is playing loose with the definition of man versus boy, but it may not be objectionable here since a 15-year-old is theoretically capable of giving consent free of outside pressure. However, the next paragraph provides insight into a possible explanation for the change in 2010:

During the first RRI study for [Voluntary Medical Male Circumcision] in 2009, which reached more than 36,000 men in 30 days, 47 per cent of clients were under 15.

That means, in 2009 under this allegedly voluntary male circumcision initiative, approximately 16,920 “men” were boys under 15-years-old. Perhaps some of them were 11-years-old (or younger), like Consolata Nyansu? Did they really volunteer?

I do not intend any trivialization of what is done to girls like Consolata Nyansu. My purpose here is to demonstrate that the narrative does not justify the illusion of disparity assumed between male and female genital cutting. The issues are the child’s lack of medical need and lack of consent. Any other reason is an excuse that should be dismissed.

This includes scenarios where facts are ignored to present what someone “knows”. The inclusion of this, from the second article, is admirable since it would likely be edited out of any Western article. (emphasis added):

Rabu Boke Yusuf, 50, from Ntimaru never underwent FGM because her resolute father stood by her.

“It is parents, especially women, who excite the desire to undergo the ‘cut’. A parent falsely tells her daughter that her age mates have been ‘cut’ to make them interested. Women are yet to believe their daughters can be married without being circumcised,” says Boke.

Any Western society discussion of FGM will include comments that it is men imposing it on women to control sexuality. The example here is not meant to suggest that men don’t impose FGM on their daughters or that’s it’s not done to control sexuality. I aim to demonstrate that facts are more complicated than that simple summary. Facts don’t care what we want to be true. Our own biases allow us to wrap this issue in points beyond protecting children from unnecessary genital cutting. We use that to pretend that gender is relevant to distinguishing between bad non-therapeutic genital cutting on a non-consenting person and “good” non-therapeutic genital cutting on a non-consenting person. That’s the implicit demand in the two articles because the first sweeps aside any distinction between man and boy and how that affects the voluntary aspect of voluntary male circumcision.

¹ This is from Kenya, but it is the default approach for most discussions of non-therapeutic genital cutting in the United States.