In 2006, the United Nations General Assembly published a report by Paulo Sérgio Pineiro into Violence against Children.[1]  Pineiro’s report conformed to UN policy and emphasised violence against women and girls and specifically female genital mutilation.  The report was one of two which followed a conference held in Geneva on Protecting Children from Harmful Practices.  The following year the UN established the International NGO Council on Violence Against Children to ensure that member states participated in UN policy.

In 2012, the Council published a hard-hitting report on violence against children based on tradition, culture, religion and superstition, Violating Children’s Rights.[2]  Under the heading of Male Circumcision, the report observed,

Male circumcision has been largely neglected in mainstream debates on harmful practices because of its strong religious connections, particularly with Judaism and Islam, and its general acceptance in many societies.  In some areas, it is also a cultural practice, for example in parts of South Africa and in Zambia among some ethnic groups, where it is associated with rituals initiating boys to adulthood.

The report observed that,

Male circumcision can result in numerous physical, psychological, and sexual health problems during the surgery, afterwards, and throughout adulthood, including haemorrhage, panic attacks, erectile dysfunction, infection (in severe forms leading to partial or complete loss of the penis), urinary infections, necrosis, permanent injury or loss of the glans, excessive penile skin loss, external deformity, and in some cases even death.

After a brief consideration of prevalence, the report unusually, perhaps even uniquely, identified that the circumcision of boys constitutes―

a gross violation of their rights, including the right to physical integrity, to freedom of thought and religion and to protection from physical and mental violence.  When extreme complications arise, it may violate the right to life.

The report commented on some of the campaign efforts against MGM before concluding that any potential health benefit “does not over-ride a child’s right to give informed consent to the practice”.

Readers will be aware that the strength of the language with which this condemnation of male genital mutilation is expressed is unparalleled in official publications from the UN or any other source.

 

Recently, the US-based anti-MGM campaigner Tim Hammond identified that the link to the report had been removed from the UN’s violence against children website.  A search for the report turns up a page which references the two reports which followed the Geneva conference; the other report is linked to, the Violating Children’s Rights report is not.  The report does remain on the Child Rights International Network website (crin.org) and on Hammond’s own Circumcision Harm site (circumcisionharm.org).

 

In 2016, the NGO Council had been disbanded and its work was taken over by the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children.  Publications from this new group reveal a commitment only to ending the genital mutilation of girls and to the VAWG agenda generally.  The UN is firmly wedded to the idea of FGM as a gender crime against the autonomy of women and girls and driven by male violence and patriarchal oppression.  The existence of MGM is an awkward embarrassment which needs to be suppressed.  In 2005, the UN stated,[3]

In the case of girls and women, the phenomenon is a manifestation of deep-rooted gender inequality that assigns them an inferior position in society and has profound physical and social consequences.  This is not the case for male circumcision, which may help to prevent the transmission of HIV/AIDS.

In both the UK and the US, it has been claimed by campaigners that MGM is already prohibited by existing legislation.  In the UK this is the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 and the Children and Young Persons Act 1933.  Case law, however, routinely supposes MGM to be lawful and not to fall within the ambit of this legislation.  In Re B and G (Children) (No2) [2015] EWFC 3, for example, in which judgment was given by the recently-retired President of the Family Division, Lord Justice Munby, the court concluded that, unlike FGM, MGM did not cross the threshold of “significant harm” because of the health benefits that are claimed for it.  As I have argued in an earlier blog post, these claims are spurious (the circumcised men in the single supportive study were given condoms; the uncircumcised men were not).

This judicial acceptance creates the very dangerous situation that to outlaw MGM would require specific legislation, analogous to the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985 and Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003.  In the current climate, no government would have the stomach for such legislation for fear of offending Jewish and Islamic sensibilities.  An attempt to outlaw MGM in Sweden was condemned by the World Jewish Congress as, “the first legal restriction on Jewish religious practice in Europe since the Nazi era”.[4]  A bill to ban male circumcision in Iceland provoked predictable claims of an assault on religious rights and allegations of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.[5]

The NGO Council’s conclusion remains ever-more relevant: an adult’s right to practise his or her religion does not give that adult the right to impose those beliefs on his or her child through irreversible bodily mutilation.  Hiding barbaric practices based on tradition and superstition behind false claims of health benefits is contemptible and does not over-rule a child’s right to respect for his bodily integrity.  The UN’s approach to ending violence against children should be based on objectivity, and not be driven by the feminist agenda.

[1] Pinheiro, P. S. (2006). Report of the independent expert for the United Nations study on violence against children. United Nations General Assembly.

[2] The International NGO Council on Violence against Children. (2012). Violating Children’s Rights: Harmful practices based on tradition, culture, religion or superstition. New York: Automation Graphics.

[3] Lewnes, A. (2005). Changing a Harmful Social Convention: Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting. Florence: UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre.

[4] Reuters. (2001, June 07). Jews Protest Swedish Circumcision Decision. Reuters.

[5] Sherwood, H. (2018, February 18). Iceland law to outlaw male circumcision sparks row over religious freedom. The Guardian.