|FGM and the United Nations|
The UN Approach to Harmful Traditional Practices: Conceptual Problems
The following article by R. Charli Carpenter was published in the International Feminist Journal of Politics in 2004.
This essay responds to Winter, Thompson and Jeffreys’ critique of the UN approach to harmful traditional practices. By questioning why these authors address only a limited set of harmful practices in the West, in particular missing the problem of infant male circumcision, I argue their critique is less radical than it appears. Indeed, the article reproduces what I see as the most problematic and gendered assumptions in the UN’s approach: namely, the conceptualization of harmful practices solely in terms of women’s victimization and men’s benefit.
Keywords: boys, children, circumcision, culture, feminism, gender, harmful practices, infants, women
This essay responds to Winter, Thompson and Jeffreys’ article ‘The UN Approach to Harmful Traditional Practices: Some Conceptual Problems’ (2002). They argue that in emphasizing only those practices affecting women and children in non-western countries, the UN obfuscates harmful traditional practices (HTPs) to which western women and children are exposed. This is an important argument. However, the authors do not go far enough in critiquing the UN approach to HTPs. Indeed, three of the thorniest conceptual issues are not analyzed at all, but are instead reproduced within the text of the article.
First, the authors accept the assumption that only practices performed ‘for male benefit’ are harmful. Second, they seem to treat only women as victims of ‘culture’. Third, although the UN claims to address abuses against ‘women and children’, only certain abuses against children (those that fit the two above assumptions) seem to be included. Together, these blinders explain why the authors’ list of harmful western practices affecting children excludes what is perhaps the most obvious one of all: the genital mutilation of infant boys, euphemistically known as ‘infant male circumcision’.
Infant Male Circumcision in the United States 
In the USA, 3,000 male infants are circumcised each day (AAP 1999: 686), generally without anesthetic, having given no consent, risking surgical complication or death and as the medical community has now admitted, receiving no verifiable medical benefits (AMA 2000).  The practice involves strapping down an infant boy, tearing the foreskin from his glans, and then either slicing or burning the foreskin off, leaving the glans (normally an internal organ) exposed (Fleiss 1997: 6).
The UN Fact Sheet describes cultural practices as ‘reflecting values and beliefs held by members of a community for periods often spanning generations’ (UN Fact Sheet: 2). Ellsworth (1999) demonstrates that culture alone accounts for the practice in the USA. Contrary to popular belief, there are no convincing hygienic or medical indications for mutilating infants’ penises (AAP 1999: 686). The practice in the USA originated in the Victorian era as a means of punishing boys who masturbated (Fleiss 1997: 1). The routinization of circumcision took place alongside the pathologization and medicalization of childbirth within the US medical establishment (Rooks 1998). Today, with circumcision rates declining in western countries, parental decisions regarding circumcision remain based on tradition, the key consideration being whether the father was circumcised (Brown and Brown 1987).
Is circumcision a harmful practice? First, even when successful, it is acutely traumatic for babies (Anand 1987: 1325). Circumcision cuts off ‘more than 3 feet of veins, arteries and capillaries, 240 feet of nerves, and . . . 20,000 nerve endings’ (Fleiss 1997: 5). Negative side effects of successful circumcisions include disfiguration and desensitization (Klauber and Boyle 1974); effects on the neonate’s brain development (Goldman 1997: 110); and a higher risk for STDs (Donovan et al. 1994). Moreover, 1 in 476 routine circumcisions in the USA is likely to result in complications (Christakis et al. 2000: 246), including uncontrollable bleeding, infections and in extreme cases, removal of the entire penis (Fleiss 1997: 7). It is estimated that between 1 in 24,000 and 1 in 500,000 baby boys will die from complications related to the procedure (Thompson 1990: 9).
Even if there were no side effects and anesthesia were always used, allowing parents to consent to the permanent mutilation of their children promotes the property status of children, which is in itself harmful both to children and to society (Somerville 2000). It also violates the universal right to bodily integrity. As Bhimji (2000) argues, legitimizing the violation of a human right is harmful, not only to the person whose rights are violated, but also to the promotion of a culture of human rights generally.
How could an analysis of ‘harmful traditional practices against women and children’ in the West miss such an obvious case as infant male circumcision? The authors adopted the UN’s conceptual definition of HTPs (p. 78), therefore only certain practices with certain victims were consistent with their analysis. First, Winter et al. uncritically accept the UN claim that the relevant practices are those that have ‘been performed for male benefit’ (UN Fact Sheet: 2). This emphasis on beneficiaries rather than perpetrators is a useful way of glossing over the fact that many of the practices in the UN Fact Sheet are perpetrated directly by women on other women or small children of both sexes (see pp. 81 and 88). It is, however, not a meaningful criterion analytically because some women also benefit from such practices.  Moreover, this formulation excludes altogether those harmful practices justified solely as benefiting women. This may partly explain why infant male circumcision is not addressed either at the UN, or by the authors. Two of the most common reasons given for circumcising boys are that circumcision protects women against STDs, and that female partners prefer circumcised men sexually (Lightfoot-Klein 1996).
Second, the assumption appears to be that only women can be victims of HTPs: ‘the concept has been developed as a way of naming and combating some of the most blatant forms of male domination of women’ (p. 72). In short, practices that otherwise fit the description, but affect males, do not count. I suspect the exclusion of harm to males from the definition of ‘cultural practices’ is linked to the association of ‘women’ with ‘culture’, which has often been used to justify lack of attention to human rights abuses of women (Peterson 1990). By designating cultural practices as ‘harmful’ the UN rightly denies the validity of this stance, but it simultaneously reproduces the assumption that it is women, not men, who are victims of culture. Indeed, patriarchy-legitimating abuses to which men and boys are typically subjected, including sex-selective massacre, conscription, sexual violence in prisons, gay-bashing and socialization into hegemonic masculinities do not appear to be considered ‘cultural’ practices (and some may not even be considered ‘harmful’).
While it may be countered that the UN’s objective with HTPs (and the authors’) is precisely not to (again) focus on adult men, the exclusion of male infants from attention is more surprising given the UN’s apparently sex-inclusive focus on ‘children’ as well as ‘women’. Here, it is analytically important to distinguish cases where children as such are harmed from cases where girls and boys experience harm differently. Winter et al. cite some examples of the former, such as infanticide (p. 82) and the medicalization of childbirth with its increase in child mortality rates (p. 85). However, other forms of abuse are sex-related: for example, although both boys and girls are raped and beaten, girls are more vulnerable to sexual abuse, and boys to physical abuse (including mutilation) in the West. According to the UN’s approach, harmful practices ‘against women and children’ seem to include cases where children of both sexes are injured, but only girl children seem to be emphasized as victims of sex-related abuse. For example, Winter et al. describe ‘male sexual abuse of female children’ in much detail (pp. 83–4) but ignore the issue of child-beating, much of which is perpetrated by mothers on sons.
Given this conceptualization of HTPs it becomes less surprising that infant male circumcision is on neither the UN’s radar screen nor the authors’, but it is hardly less problematic. That the UN criteria explicitly exclude practices such as infant male circumcision speaks not only to the UN’s cultural bias, but also to the utter inadequacy of its focus to counter some of the most prevalent human rights abuses in western culture. If the only harmful traditional practices on the UN agenda are those done to women for the benefit of men then any practices affecting males (including children) or ostensibly done for women’s benefit will be neglected. The authors are silent on this matter: despite their claims of addressing ‘conceptual problems’, their analysis is primarily substantive. At the conceptual level, they reproduce instead of question the most fundamental problems of all.
R. Charli Carpenter
Department of Politics and IR
NOTES1. This argument should not be construed as a comparison of infant male circumcision to the more extreme forms of FGM. I agree with many other feminists that these practices are not comparable in scope or severity. Infant male circumcision can and should be condemned on its own lack of merit.
2. The Circumcision Information and Resource Pages on the Web include a compilation of statements on circumcision by the medical establishment in industrialized countries around the world. See http://www.cirp.org/library/statements
3 For example, FGM has persisted in places over the objection of some men partly because it benefits the older women and the female cutters (Gruenbaum 2001).
REFERENCESAmerican Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). 1999. ‘Circumcision Policy Statement’,
Pediatrics 103 (3): 686–93.
American Medical Association (AMA). 2000. ‘Report 10 of the Council on Scientific Affairs: Neonatal Circumcision.’ Online at http://www.ama-assn.org/ama/pub/article/2036–2511.html
Anand, K. 1987. ‘Pain and Its Effects on the Human Neonate and Fetus’, New England Journal of Medicine 317: 1321–9.
Bhimji, M. D. 2000. ‘Infant Male Circumcision: A Violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.’ Online at http://www.longwoods.com/hl/pdf/circum.pdf
Brown, M. S. and Brown, C. A. 1987. ‘Circumcision Decision: Prominence of Social Concerns’, Pediatrics 80 (2): 215–19.
Christakis, D., Harvey, E., Zerr, D. M., Feudtner, C., Wright, J. and Connell, F. 2000. ‘A Trade-off Analysis of Routine Newborn Circumcision’, Pediatrics 105 (1) Supplement: 246–9.
Donovan, B., Bassett, I. and Bodsworth, N. J. 1994. ‘Male Circumcision and Common Sexually Transmissible Diseases in a Developed Nation Setting’, Genitourinary Medicine 70: 317–20.
Ellsworth, K. 1999. ‘Universal Human Rights in Discourse and Practice: The Culture of Circumcision in U.S. Foreign Policy.’ Paper presented at the Western Political Science Association Annual Conference, Seattle, WA (March).
Fleiss, P. 1997. ‘The Case against Circumcision’, Mothering 85 (Winter). Online at http://www.mothering.com/10-0-0/html/10–1-0/10–1-circumcision85.shtml Goldman, R. 1997. Circumcision: The Hidden Trauma. Boston, MA: Vanguard Publications.
Gruenbaum, E. 2001. The Female Circumcision Controversy: An Anthropological Perspective. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Klauber, G. and Boyle, J. 1974. ‘Prenuptial Skin-Bringing Complications of Circumcision’, Urology 3: 722–3.
Lightfoot-Klein, H. 1996. ‘Similarities in Attitudes and Misconceptions toward Infant Male Circumcision in North American and Ritual Female Genital Mutilation in Africa.’ The Fourth International Symposium on Sexual Mutilations: Global Perspectives on Male and Female Genital Mutilation: Circumcision, Ethics, and Human Rights, Lausanne, Switzerland. See also http://www.fgmnetwork.org/intro/mgmfgm.html
Peterson, V. S. 1990. ‘Whose Rights? A Critique of the ‘‘Givens’’ in Human Rights Discourse’, Alternatives 15 (3): 303–44.
Rooks, J. 1998. Midwifery and Childbirth in America. Philadelphia, PA: Temple
Somerville, M. 2000. ‘Altering Baby Boys’ Bodies: The Ethics of Infant Male Circumcision’, in Margaret Somerville The Ethical Canary: Science, Society and the Human Spirit, pp. 202–19. Toronto: Viking.
Thompson, R. S. 1990. ‘Routine Circumcision in the Newborn: An Opposing View’, Journal of Family Practice 31 (2): 189–96. Available at http://www.cirp.org/library/disease/UTI/thompson/.
United Nations. Fact Sheet No. 23, Harmful Traditions Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children. Available at http://www.unhchr.ch/html/menu6/2/fs23.htm
Winter, B., Thompson, D. and Jeffreys, S. 2002. ‘The UN Approach to Harmful
Practices: Some Conceptual Problems’, International Feminist Journal of Politics 4 (1): 72–95.
Source: R. Charli Carpenter, "A Response to Bronwyn Winter, Denise Thompson and Sheila Jeffreys, ‘The UN Approach to Harmful Traditional Practices: Some Conceptual Problems’: Some Other Conceptual Problems", in International Feminist Journal of Politics, Vol. 6, No. 2, June 2004, 308–313 (ISSN 1461–6742 print/ISSN 1468–4470 online © 2004 Taylor & Francis Ltd; website: http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals