Children's Rights - Human Rights Joint Committee Contents

Memorandum submitted by the National Organisation Circumcision Information Resource Centre of Northern Ireland

  I welcome the opportunity to participate in a call for evidence by the Joint Committee on Human Rights regarding the current problems experienced by children in the United Kingdom and the protection of their human rights.

I am writing you concerning those children in our society who are subjected to genital mutilations at an age when they are incapable of providing consent, who are further discriminated against on the basis of their parents cultural background and a lack of fatual information.

  There are may charities involved in education and raising awareness in this area of child health and human rights we work nationally and internationally. We come from a variety of background and include members of the Jewish, Muslim and Christian communities. Many of us became involved in this work because we are parents of damaged children and only became aware of the facts after our children had surgery. As you can imagine this work is extremely difficult due to the taboos surrounding the discussion of the genitals in general, due to the religious and cultural aspects of these practices and due to the most intimate nature of the problems experienced by survivors.

  Whilst being equally concerned about the genital mutilation of all children I will focus on the circumcision of male children as currently there is some degree of protection for female children due to a greater public awareness of the harmful nature of the procedure, the excellent work of FORWARD and the development of the Metropolitan Police's, Project Azure.

  Currently however there it a total lack of a public knowledge that male circumcision is harmful to the developing child and the adult he will become.

  10 years ago Baroness Jenny Tonge speaking in the House of Commons said that the eradication of both practices was essential.

    "Speaking from a medical point of view, it would be helpful if, when we campaign for the abolition of genital mutilation, we included male genital mutilation. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree that there is no medical reason for male circumcision. Many small boys are seriously damaged by that operation being done by unlicensed practitioners and people who do not know how to do it properly. It may broaden the issue and make it easier for certain cultural groups to accept if we go for both forms of operation, not just one of them."

  Although there are those who have argued that circumcision is benign, the Canadian Children's Rights Council is quite clear on the damage caused by male genital mutilation. With Finland calling for an outright ban until the child is old enough to consent.

  Circumcision often causes an ulceration at the urethral opening (meatal ulceration), affecting 20% to 50% of all circumcised infants. In many cases, the opening narrows (meatal stenosis), although it may take years for the condition to be noticed. The normal urinary stream in the male is a spiraling ribbon. The urinary stream in meatal stenosis is needle-like, prolonged and frequently associated with discomfort.

  Circumcision also affects sexual pleasure. The inner layer of the foreskin produces smegma, which keeps the glans soft. Without its protective and moisturizing cover, the sensitive glans becomes dry and leathery, resembling skin instead of a mucous membrane. In addition to maintaining glans sensitivity, an intact, mobile foreskin also provides indirect stimulation during intercourse.

  Recently More 4 News reported on the circumcision of a male child by a mechanic in the community in England and at a recent conference in London, the Metropolitan police confirmed that deaths have occurred from male circumcision nationally.

  Many parents believed and still do that genital mutilations are beneficial for the health and well being of their children however, UK courts have interceded in the past to protect the best interests of children whose parental belief systems have put children at risk.

  In June 2007 the British Medical Association which had previously offered general guidance on male circumcision stated:

    "That any decision to provide medical or surgical treatment to a child, or any decision to withhold medical or surgical treatment from a child, should: consider the ethical, cultural and religious views of the child's parents and/or carers, but without allowing these views to override the rights of the child to have his/her best interests to be protected."

  Male circumcision was not specifically mentioned in this guidance however it cannot be in the best interest of a child to be subjected, without its consent, to an irreversible surgical procedure, which has proven adverse consequences both in terms of potential complications for some and reduced penile sensation in adulthood for all.

  In September 2008, a new campaign was launched in London with members of those working nationally and internationally in this area. Paul Mason the Children's Rights commissioner for Tasmania stated that

    "Unnecessary genital surgery on babies is said to be cheaper and easier than on adults. All abuse of babies is easier. They are powerless and history will judge us by how we protect the powerless."

  It is always beneficial not to carry out surgery when there are other non-invasive alternatives. A recent series of circumcisions for religious reasons in an NHS facility reported an 18% complication rate.

  The overall rate of significant complications for circumcision may be of the order of 2%-10%. Complication rates of up to 55% have however been reported for circumcision. Recent studies have reported sexual dysfunction rates of 27% to 38% secondary to male circumcision.

  Whilst having every respect for those from diverse cultural backgrounds doctors have legal and ethical duties to their child patients to render competent medical care based on what the patient needs, not what someone else expresses. The majority of parents and doctors work with the best interests of their children at heart however many parents and doctors have been sadly misinformed.and are uneducated in this area.

  Nick Malone of the Sexual Problems Clinic in Edinburgh Royal Infirmary has said:

    "If the good doctors brushed up on their science a little, we could bypass these tiresome refutations and focus on more pertinent issues of legality, human rights and consent."

  It may be argued, with some degree of persuasiveness, that religious circumcision must be made available through doctors to minimise the harm. The high rates of complications for circumcisions in NHS hospitals and the later high rate of sexual dysfunction remind us that male circumcision is a traditional practice prejudicial to the health of children.

  The Female Genital Mutilation states that in applying the law,

    "no account shall be taken... that the operation is required as a matter of custom or ritual."

  Clearly then we have discrimination when it comes to protecting boys whose parents come from the Jewish or Muslim faith.

  Parents asserting their right to circumcise their children assert that their right to manifest one's religious beliefs is guaranteed by article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). That article of the ECHR however includes a permission to restrict that right where necessary to protect the rights and freedoms of others. Such a restriction is appropriate to protect children from the harm inherent in circumcision.

  It is quite clear that like female genital mutilation male genital mutilation is a harmful traditional practice in the sense of Article 24(3) of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and is discriminatory under Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act.

  Circumcision, of male or female children is only ever justified if the patient's life is at risk if it is not performed—for example if there is a tumour or a gangrenous infection and if the patient is a sexually active and psychologically sound adult, and provides proper consent after being fully informed of all potential consequences.

  This is a question of children's rights over their own bodies this is a choice they must must all be allowed to make for themselves as adults.

  In December 2008 members of the National Organisation Circumcision Information Resource Centre of Northern Ireland and NORM UK met with the Commissioner for Children and Young People in Northern Ireland to discuss the problems with regard to lack of consent of the child, lack of informed consent of parents and ways in which children could be empowered in this area.

  The original reasons to make dissociation between the practices of male and female genital mutilation were pragmatic because it was believed at the time that the fight against female genital mutilation would be more difficult if male circumcision was also challenged. This has proved not be the case as despite legislation 15,000 female children are still at risk in the UK therefore education is central for the eradication of these practices.

  On 2 March we will have new base in Belfast in Bryson House to continue education and outreach in this area.

  I trust that the committee will look at this area as a matter of urgency before another child dies.

February 2009

previous page contents next page

House of Lords home page Parliament home page House of Commons home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2009
Prepared 20 November 2009