One of the country’s most senior judges has courted controversy by declaring that male circumcision can be more harmful than female genital mutilation (FGM).
Sir James Munby acknowledged he was entering “deep waters” by highlighting inconsistencies in the law, but said it would be “irrational” to dispute the fact that male circumcision can be more harmful than some forms of FGM. The High Court judge made the comments as he passed judgment in care proceedings brought by a local authority seeking to take a brother and sister, from a Muslim family, into care on the grounds that the girl was a victim of Type IV FGM.
While the case failed on the grounds that damage to the girl’s genitals was probably caused by a condition called vulvovaginitis, Munby, who is president of the family division, felt compelled to highlight the sexist double standard that the case brought to light.
In summing up the judge noted that while subjecting a girl to Type IV FGM could result in that child being taken into care, male circumcision would not lead to a boy being removed from his family, even though the procedure is more harmful than at least some forms of Type IV FGM.
An inconvenient truth
Campaigners against male circumcision have long been hampered by the myth that subjecting girls to FGM is different and always worse than circumcising boys.
The uncomfortable truth, to which Munby has now given judicial credibility, is that male circumcision is different and sometimes worse than FGM.
This is particularly true of Type IV FGM which incorporates practices such as pricking, piercing and nicking the genitals, which are less harmful and invasive than removing the foreskin in it’s entirety.
Male circumcision in the UK is often performed without anaesthetic, in non-medical conditions and can cause complications such as life threatening haemorrhage, shock, sepsis an in extreme cases death.
In 2012 a Freedom of Information request revealed that two boys a week are admitted to the emergency department of Birmingham children’s hospital as a result of male circumcision.
Society more tolerant of male circumcision
However, despite Munby’s assessment that ”on any objective view” male circumcisions is sometimes worse than FGM, he also made clear that current judicial thinking is that there is no equivalence between the two practices.
“In 2015 ,” he said in his judgment, “the law generally, and family law in particular, is still prepared to tolerate non-therapeutic male circumcision performed for religious or even for purely cultural or conventional reasons, while no longer being willing to tolerate FGM in any of its forms.
“Given the comparison between what is involved in male circumcision and FGM WHO Type IV, to dispute that the more invasive procedure involves the significant harm involved in the less invasive procedure would seem almost irrational. In my judgment, if FGM Type IV amounts to significant harm, as in my judgment it does, then the same must be so of male circumcision.”
The phrase “significant harm” is important as this is the first threshold that must be crossed before a child can be taken into care under section 31 of the Children’s Act 1989. There is another criteria which must also be considered in care proceedings and this is whether the care given to a child is “what would be reasonable to expect a parent to give”.
Why the law is different
According to Munby, while it can never be reasonable parenting to inflict any form of FGM on a child, the position is quite different with male circumcision.
Munby argued that there are at least two important distinctions between the two practices. Firstly, that FGM has no basis in any religion, while male circumcision is often performed for religious reasons. Secondly, that while FGM is said to have no medical justification and confers no health benefits; male circumcision is seen by some people as providing hygienic or prophylactic benefits, although opinions are divided.
Even taking the conflicting medical evidence on any perceived benefits into account, Munby concluded that “reasonable” parenting should be seen to permit male circumcision.
And that is where UK law stands on the matter today. The Head of the Family Division of the Family Court has judged that while male circumcision is sometimes worse than FGM, it is deemed to be reasonable for parents of all backgrounds to circumcise their sons, while carrying out a less invasive and less harmful from of Type IV FGM on their daughters is not considered reasonable parental behaviour.
A welcome coup for campaigners
Having a senior judge acknowledge that FGM can be less harmful than male circumcision is a welcome coup for those of us who advocate for the right of every human being to enter adulthood with intact genitals, except in rare cases where therapeutic surgery is unequivocally unavoidable.
The fact that our society, led by politicians and the judiciary, is still prepared to tolerate greater harm happening to boys than to girls, reveals a great deal about the sexist double standards we apply to the issues that affect men and boys in 2015.
The fact that we are collectively more tolerant of the harm that happens to men and boys, than the harm that happens to women and girls, doesn’t begin and end at genital mutilation.
Our shared cultural beliefs that “boys don’t cry”; that men should “man up”; that women have problems and men are problems; that females are the weaker sex and that we should always put the protection of women and girls first; is reflected in our inability to tackle a whole range of social issues that, predominantly impact men and boys, head on.
Why this is a men’s issue
These include male suicide; male homelessness; the high rate of male workplace deaths; men’s lower life expectancy; the expulsion of boys from school; the exclusion and marginalisation of separated fathers from their children’s lives; the way we respond to male victims of violence and the harsher treatment and sentencing of men and boys in the criminal justice system.
What Sir James Munby has uncovered is an inconvenient and important truth about men, manhood and masculinity in 2015 which is simply this—while the harm that happens to men and boys in our society is different and sometimes worse than the harm that happens to women and girls, we still view any harm that women and girls experience more seriously.
Munby is part of the problem he has raised, for while he acknowledges that male circumcision can be more harmful than FGM, he has essentially declared that while it’s reasonable for parents to harm their sons, it is never reasonable to harm their daughters.
Article by Glen Poole author of the book Equality For Men
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