Ritual circumcision cannot be reconciled with child rights

Posted: Wed, 22nd May 2024 by Alejandro Sanchez

Following the Worldwide Day of Genital Autonomy earlier this month, Dr Alejandro Sanchez notes that while child rights continue to progress, boys at risk of non-therapeutic circumcision are being left behind.

Hu Chen via Unsplash https://unsplash.com/photos/sleeping-baby-on-white-textile-6yi0oPZSNy4

Tuesday, May 7, marked the 12th annual Worldwide Day of Genital Autonomy (WWDOGA). WWDOGA commemorates the anniversary of a landmark ruling of Cologne's Landgericht (Court of Appeal), which on May 7 2012 held that religious circumcision of boys amounted to criminal battery.

The ruling was, unfortunately, not to last. Unwilling to be the only jurisdiction in the world to outlaw non-therapeutic circumcision (NTMC), the Bundestag, Germany's parliament, passed a resolution to explicitly legalise the practice. This was despite "the constitutionally protected legal positions of the well-being of the child, the right to bodily integrity, [and] the right to religious freedom".

Nevertheless, the ruling makes Cologne in some sense the spiritual vanguard of the genital autonomy movement.

Each year in the city, WWDOGA brings together doctors, lawyers and child rights advocates from across the globe to process through the streets in opposition to all forms of non-therapeutic childhood genital cutting: female genital mutilation (FGM), circumcision and intersex cutting. The day culminates in speeches in the old town square.

This year, Rubine Singh, of Cologne's intersex support group baraka, shared a moving story of being born intersex in India and being spared unnecessary genital surgery.

"I stand here today as a happy and lucky intersex person", Rubine said, adding: "I want to live in a world where it is not a matter of luck whether you face the knife."

Lilith Raza, of Germany's Lesbian and Gay Federation+, powerfully recounted being subjected to NTMC at the age of five without anaesthesia and pinned down by four people

For me, WWODGA serves as an opportunity to take stock on our work to end non-consensual religious and cultural circumcision. As I mentioned in my speech, it's been a busy year for the NSS on this front: We've lobbied MPs, met with medical organisations, made the case against circumcision before the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva, and recruited prominent voices in cutting communities to support our campaign.

It also represents a chance to think about opportunities that lie ahead.

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Children's Health takes a permissive stance on NTMC. It defers to General Medical Council guidance which not only greenlights circumcision, but permits parents to "invite their religious adviser to be present during the procedure to give advice on how it should be performed to meet the requirements of their faith." (The mind boggles.)

However, the College's recent call for a legislative ban on "smacking, hitting, and slapping" a child will put its stance on NTMC to the test. Readers will reach their own conclusions on the wisdom of such a ban, but it would seem absurd to support criminalising a smack on the bottom while defending the 'right' to cut off part of a child's penis.

Meanwhile, Scotland has become the first nation in the UK to incorporate the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) into domestic law. The UNCRC Act, due to come into force in July, will impose a duty on public bodies to act compatibly with the Convention.

Statutory guidance on the Act recognises "childhood is a special time which must have additional protections" and sets out a vision to make Scotland "the best place in the world to grow up". This vision is to be underpinned by the four 'General Principles' of the UNCRC: non-discrimination, the best interests of the child, the child's right to life and the child's right to be heard.

This is to be commended. There is, however, one snag: Scotland is also the only UK nation to provide ritual circumcision on its NHS. How will Bute House reconcile its lofty language on child rights with a state-sanctioned programme of infant genital cutting that nakedly violates all four General Principles?

For a solution, they need look no further than the 2016 recommendation of the Committee that oversees the CRC: "Ensure that no one is subjected to unnecessary medical or surgical treatment during infancy or childhood" and "guarantee bodily integrity, autonomy and self-determination to children concerned".

It is telling that in response the Scottish government laid out strategies to end FGM and intersex cutting, but remained silent on NTMC. The head in the sand approach is a tried-and-true one, and it's easy to feel that nothing will ever change.

As I said at WWDOGA, when it comes to circumcision: "the task is daunting and progress is slow, but we won't give up."

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Tags: Genital cutting