Skip to content or view screen version

A Strange Case of Double Standards

Laura MacDonald | 27.02.2009 20:38 | Gender | Health | Repression

Another child has died from male circumcision in England - apparently the third such death in 25 months - and boys (from babies to teenagers) are being regularly treated in hospitals for serious injuries or infections resulting from ritual genital cutting. NORM-UK, the charity concerned with the foreskin, calls on the government to implement fully the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and give both boys and girls protection against ritual wounding - in all its forms.

Amid the clamour about the death of baby Jaden Mack in a dog attack, and the continued reverberations of the ‘Baby P’ case, another child death was reported rather quietly earlier this month.

Nine week old Celian Noumbiwe died as a result of a wilful wounding, commanded by his parents. He’s the latest in a list of children to die in this way, and for every Celian there are around 100 who are treated for life threatening injuries but who survive.

The injury and death figures for this particular type of wound are in fact rather comparable to those for dog bites. In the last 25 months it’s understood that 3 children have died* following it and thousands overall will have required some form of follow-up treatment for issues such as blood loss, persistent pain or infection. The police have taken photographs of some of the injuries, which presumably then were filed away, as the government has made it clear no prosecutions can result.

In fact the government has said that anyone is free to inflict this on a child, anywhere any time. In a recent letter to NORM-UK Department of Health said that the only way in which this kind of wounding could result in a prosecution is if the perpetrator had, “pretended to be a doctor”. This would mean that the mechanic who burned off part of a 3 year old’s body with a soldering iron (as reported in September on More4 news) apparently acted perfectly legally…

So what is it that makes us turn our faces away when a child spends a period in hospital because adults burned him or cut him, or when a baby bleeds to death in his cot over a long lonely night?

The answer is a fear of criticising religious practice. The excision of around 50% of a child’s penile skin is considered a duty in two large religious groups and we don’t like to talk about either the direct harm or the collateral damage… because doing so might offend. We’re even careful to construct the statistics so that the deaths simply disappear. When NORM-UK asked the Department of Health about circumcision deaths in late 2007 they told us, “the Office Of National Statistics holds mortality statistics and these data show no evidence of death where circumcision was listed as the secondary cause”.

It’s easy to see how this result is achieved – just as Haringey’s ex-Children’s Services Director knew, hitting targets is all about what you choose to measure. So for example when in 1991 Raju Miah had the most sensitive part of his genitals excised, and never woke up, the death was recorded as ‘narcotic poisoning’ (i.e. an overdose of anaesthetic). Not a circumcision related death then. Neither apparently was the death of baby Boma Oruitemeka in London in 1990 from severe haemorrhage after circumcision (without anaesthetic). In this case the Coroner Dr Douglas Chambers was almost endearingly frank about his own reasons for avoiding the issues: “I’m not going to stir up that hornet’s nest” he said, “oh no thank you not at all.”

In Ireland in 2005, hearing the case of baby Callis Osaghae, Judge Kevin Haugh (the late) drew the lines more clearly. He instructed the jury to put their “white western values” aside. So dutifully they did, finding the man who razored off one of the most blood and nerve rich areas of the baby’s body not guilty of reckless endangerment. Fourth generation genital cutter Osagie Igbinidion walked free from court complaining of the “immense pain and distress" he had gone through during the trial process. Callis had no chance to tell of his pain and distress – he had died in 2003 with not a drop of blood left in his body.

Although the humanists spoke up for Callis, those concerned with human rights - and more particularly child rights - generally remain silent in such cases. They like to think that (male) genital cutting injuries are a competency issue and not intrinsic to the practice. Yet complications have been recorded in as many as one in two boys, deaths are regular in both developed and less developed nations; and the intent of the surgery is - as the sage Maimonides admitted - a reduction in sexual pleasure.

Long-standing human traditions are clearly important. Yet the belief system or habits of one person cannot over-ride the absolute rights of another – be they one day old or 100 years old. So we don’t allow the ritual facial scarification or even tattooing of a minor and we’ve banned all ritual female genital mutilation practices from small incision to radical excision. We’re stepping up action against forced marriage, and we’ve criminalised those who would not ‘spare the rod’ or even the heavily applied hand. All this is scripture, tradition, belief, culture and hadith notwithstanding.

So if that mechanic had put down his tools and spanked the boy hard as a punishment for crying he could have faced prosecution for common assault.

The NSPCC campaigned for this new law, and in fact want it taken further so that any and every smack is classified as assault – as does the Children’s Commissioner for England Sir Al Aynsley-Green.

Yet they will not campaign to protect boys from sacrificial genital cutting, or even to have the use of anaesthesia or sterile medical equipment made compulsory. When asked why, they cite, “the sensitivity of the issue”.

We call on the NSPCC and the government to end this shameful relativism, and start applying the values we have all agreed: every child matters and human rights, including the right to bodily integrity and personal autonomy, are universal.

*We have been unable to ascertain the details of the death which apparently occurred in London in Summer 2008 after a male circumcision. It seems likely that over the years there have been others which, like this one, simply pass ‘under the radar’. The third death - that of baby Amitai Moshe on 9th February 2007 - comes to inquest at Hornsey Coroners Court, London on 20th April 2009.


Laura MacDonald
- e-mail:
- Homepage: