Thursday, August 13, 2009

Forced circumcision case in South Africa

The ancient practice of circumcision never fails to stir things up. Neonatal circumcision, whose popularity has steadily declined in Europe and is on the wane in the United States, is a reliable flashpoint for ethical debate. The debate over the costs and benefits of circumcision has been stimulated by research indicating that being circumcised significantly reduces a man's chances of getting HIV via hetrosexual intercourse. In South Africa, there has been much discussion about the state of traditional circumcision rituals, given that a significant number of young men die from circumcision-related causes each year.

An ongoing case in South Africa adds some new wrinkles to ethical and legal debates about circumcision in Africa. Bonani Yamani claims that when he was 19, he was abducted from his home, taken into the bush, circumcised against his will and forced to eat his own foreskin. His father apparently arranged or otherwise had knowledge that the abduction/circumcision was to take place, and it is his father that Yamani is suing. As it turns out, Yamani had undergone a (partial?) medical circumcision some months before. So Yamani is not against circumcision per se; he is opposed to traditional (Xhosa) circumcision, which he believes is contrary to his own Christian faith. And he is naturally opposed to having had it forced upon him.

The case brings out conflicts in a number of directions. There is the conflict between the father and son. The conflict between different views of circumcision: medical, traditional and (adopted) religion. But there is also a conflict between traditional leaders (in particular, the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa or Contralesa) and the South African constitution: according to traditional norms, a male Xhosa who refuses to be circumcised is to be ostracised from his community. Traditional circumcision is not a matter of informed consent. It is just simply done, as part of being a Xhosa man, and refusal is not accepted. On this view, non-traditional circumcision and community membership are mutually exclusive. Yamani's legal defense will be arguing that not being able to live as a non-traditionally circumcised Xhosa should be regarded as discrimination under the South African constitution. Members of Contralesa have publicly stated that the constitution really has no grip on this area of South African life. This should be one to watch.

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