Cultural Cutting: Circumcision and Genital Mutilation

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Prisca Korein, a 62-year-old traditional surgeon, holds razor blades before carrying out female genital mutilation on teenage girls from the Sebei tribe in Bukwa district, about 357 kms (214 miles) northeast of Kampala, December 15, 2008. The ceremony was to initiate the teenagers into womanhood according to Sebei traditional rites. REUTERS/James Akena (UGANDA) - RTR22M64

Prisca Korein, a 62-year-old traditional surgeon, holds razor blades before carrying out female genital mutilation on teenage girls from the Sebei tribe in Bukwa district near Kampala. REUTERS/James Akena (UGANDA) 

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Xhosa initiates “abakwhetha” at an initiation school

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Kenyan girls having undergone genital mutilation ceremony

I am a part of the Xhosa tribe in South Africa. Male circumcision is one of the most important rites of passage for young boys in our culture. This is a rite of passage which is conducted by the men of the community, in a secluded area away in the bush – away from the women and the rest of the community.

I remember my cousins going to initiation school (as it is commonly known as) when I was growing up. The build up to the ceremony was the most exciting time of the year. My grandmother’s house would be packed with family members who had come to assist with the preparations for the big ceremony of “umgidi” – the return of “umkhwetha” (initiate) from the bush. Only after this rite of passage, is a male in the Xhosa culture considered a real man.

A growing concern regarding this practice, however, is the increase in related injuries and deaths which became prevalent since 2005. The circumcisions, often executed by a community elder with years of experience but lacking in medical training, left many young men prone to complications such as exposure to infections, diseases such as HIV and even errors resulting in penectomies.

Given that one of the most researched terms that lead people to my blog is female genital mutilation, I thought about the two cultural practices in comparison to each other. Both are considered to be an immense intrusion on the privacy of individuals by some, both entail the altering of genitals on cultural and religious grounds and both are an essential rite of passage which shapes one’s cultural identity and self-worth. So why do I relentlessly stand for one and not the other?

To be fair, I’ll begin with accepting that my views on “ukwaluka” are largely shaped by the fact that I grew up with this idea being an integral part of our customs as amaXhosa. This is where my cultural relativism and bias comes in. To put it simply, it is the principle of regarding the beliefs, values, and practices of a culture from the viewpoint of that culture itself. The generational significance of the practice has entrenched pride, prestige and acceptance as a result of having partaken in this custom. Surely the same can be said by those who endorse female genital mutilation, so what’s the difference?

  • Health benefits vs. harm

Female genital mutilation has been reported by the World Health Organisation to have no health benefits and numerous harms including “severe pain, shock, haemorrhage (bleeding), tetanus or sepsis (bacterial infection), urine retention, open sores in the genital region” and long term consequences such as “recurrent bladder and urinary tract infections, cysts, infertility, an increased risk of childbirth complications and new-born deaths”. Whereas the medical benefits of circumcision as documented by National Health Service (UK) include reducing the risks of developing urinary tract infections and cancer of the penis, and contracting STIs like HIV and genital herpes.

  • Illegitimate coercion

If most of these benefits include one’s acceptance into a particular culture or religion, surely this should be the choice made by the individual. Between infancy and 15, one is still cannot make this decision, so genital mutilation for cultural identity which one has not even consented to is an imposition and violation, particularly if the harms may have a lasting effect. “Ukwaluka” is only legal and generally accepted from the age of 18 and upwards as the boys will have reached maturity and are be able to make this decision.

  • Politics of the practice

One of the most troubling aspects about female genital mutilation is that it is primarily aimed at enforcing modesty and proper sexual behaviour, linking procedures to premarital virginity and marital fidelity in young girls. This is a step backwards in the global aims to restore the dignity of women and combating practices where women are subjected to gruesome discriminatory traditions.

Ultimately, the moral here is to critically asses our cultural practices and be aware of our own biases. At the end of the day, culture matters and we’re not trying to homogenise the world into a single ‘western’ culture but to improve harmful practices and uproot them if need be.

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