Talk about male circumcision – but don’t undermine women’s voices

Meg argues that by equating FGM and non-medical male circumcision as the same, we ultimately undermine women’s voices and the fight to eliminate FGM.

Most feminists will agree that Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is abhorrent and must be challenged. Yet a common critique of this fight is the lack of similarly vocal opposition to male circumcision. Indeed, for some this is evidence that men’s issues just aren’t considered as important.

Personally, I am against both FGM and non-medical circumcision performed on babies and young boys because of the lack of consent - but although both are practices of ‘cutting’ on children’s genitalia, the motivations behind them and the consequences of the ‘cutting’ are very different. By equating FGM and non-medical circumcision as the same, we ultimately undermine women’s voices and the fight to eliminate FGM.

Why do these practices exist?

Barring medical exceptions, male circumcision is typically done as a religious practice (notably in Judaism and Islam) and can symbolise membership of a religious group and devotion to god. Among some countries, such as the United States, it is also a form of cultural practice – it is carried out because it has become a cultural norm to do so.

Conversely, while FGM is almost always seen as a socio-cultural transition to womanhood, its fundamental purpose is to suppress and control female sexuality by making sexual intercourse extremely painful. The belief is that an ‘uncut’ girl is more likely to be promiscuous, and a girl who undergoes FGM is less likely to engage in extra-marital sex. Today, it has become a sign to others that a girl is virginal, and families within cultures where FGM is a norm believe their daughter will suffer from the stigma of not being cut.

Although both practices can signify ‘belonging’, or a rite of passage to adulthood, FGM is a manifestation of deeply entrenched gender inequality and misogyny – male circumcision is not.

Whether you agree with non-medical male circumcision or not, the important thing to remember is that the intended purpose is very different. Although both practices can signify ‘belonging’, or a rite of passage to adulthood, FGM is a manifestation of deeply entrenched gender inequality and misogyny – male circumcision is not.

Health Impacts

FGM can be the cause of a number of serious medical complications, including not only haemorrhage but also urinary retention, urinary infection, wound infection, septicaemia and death. Furthermore, there are many maternal health complications that can arise from FGM during childbirth. This can result in the loss of both the baby’s and the mother’s life.

On the other hand, nearly a third of men worldwide are circumcised and only between 0.2 and 0.4% have any negative health effects. In fact, there can be some health benefits - there is significant emerging research that male circumcision can reduce HIV transmission by up to 60%, and also reduce the likelihood of transmitting other sexually transmitted infections.

This is not to say that non-consensual male circumcision is acceptable – but it’s extremely important to recognize that male circumcision has very minimal negative health effects, while the health impacts of FGM can be catastrophic, and it categorically serves no medical purpose.

Undermining Women’s Voices

As previously mentioned, I support the movement against non-consensual and non-medical male circumcision personally. I take no issue with people bringing up the topic and creating spaces to discuss it.

However, I am uncomfortable that so often people insist on discussing male circumcision when we are talking about FGM. Not only are the two practices vastly different as outlined above, but it is inappropriate to derail opposition to FGM because male circumcision is not being discussed.

Until we have gender parity; adequate female representation by policy-makers, equal educational opportunities, and a true equal female voice, then we need to ensure that spaces for issues that directly negatively target women are protected.

There are huge barriers in place around the world that mean women who suffer from FGM are unable to speak out simply because they are women. Until we have gender parity; adequate female representation by policy-makers, equal educational opportunities, and a true equal female voice, then we need to ensure that spaces for issues that directly negatively target women are protected.

Unfortunately, this is a common theme that gender activists encounter, they discuss a problem that a woman faces and they then encounter criticism for not discussing issues that affect men.

Overall, I understand why at first glance FGM and male circumcision are often equated. But FGM is simply a way of controlling females and their sexuality that has major repercussions on their health for the rest of their lives.

Although the health impacts do differentiate the practices, with FGM having major repercussions on the health of women for the rest of their lives, the crux of the issue is that FGM takes places in the context of - and serves to reinforce - gender inequality. There are valid arguments against male circumcision but conflating the two will not help critics of male circumcision, but simply derail the fight against FGM.

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*This blog should be taken as the opinion of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the official position of Youth For Change or Plan International UK.