Suspend and criminalise male traditional circumcision

The South African Constitution states categorically that everyone has inherent right to have their dignity respected and protected. Contrary to this profound Constitutional directive, the practise of traditional male circumcision in various provinces deprive young boys of their dignity and right to life.

Early this year (2016) the National House of Traditional Leaders was on record as saying there would be "no initiate dying this season (May – July)" due to the new Cabinet policy to halt this phenomenon. However, by Monday, 04 July 2016, there were 14 deaths of initiates in the Eastern Cape Province.[1] The Government through the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (Cogta) has tried various interventions to mitigate the effects of this practise which all have yielded zero effect as loss of life continues unabated. This practice is termed as rite of passage into manhood but due to the death rate, it has been dubbed as a rite of passage into anguish, shame and death. Given the dismal failure of all plans to halt prematurely and innocent deaths of young initiates, it is high time that traditional circumcision be shut-down and criminalised.

According to the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities’ report of 2014, over a half a million initiates were hospitalised due to botched traditional circumcisions between 2008 and 2014, with estimated five hundred initiates considered to have lost their lives.[2] Given this reality, it is cardinal to recognise that the quality of life for any young boy is to have a penis that is not disfigured and malfunctioning due to botch traditional circumcision. To this end, we ought to be sober and recognise that there has never been any death arising from not undergoing traditional circumcision hence this proposal to cease this practise and criminalise those that disobey the directive to stop it.

If one juxtaposes the benefits of medical male circumcision and traditional circumcision, the differences are significant. For example, the medical male circumcision provides the following benefits:[3]

·       Safety and free at public health facilities;

·    Administered by medically trained personnel and uses sterilised equipment;

·   Reduces the risks of contracting sexually transmitted infections including HIV;

·         Provides better hygiene;

·     Eliminates bruising and tearing of tissues during sex;

·         Mitigates the risks of penile cancer; and

·         Provides greater health benefits for the sexual partner.

On the other hand, the traditional circumcision provides a little feel good effect with more socioeconomic and health challenges such as:

·         Significant probability of botched procedure;

·         Significant probability of having disfigured and malfunctioning penis;

·         Significant probability of contracting illnesses as the equipment used is not sterilised;

·         Significant probability of losing a penis; and

·         Financial implications upon the completion of procedure by the initiate’s family.

Given the significant shortcomings of traditional circumcision, it is unimaginable that in 2016, we hold to this practice so dear when innocent lives of young boys are lost and hundreds of families are left grieving as a result. It is in this context that as a nation we have to part ways with this practise and conform to modern scientific medical circumcision which yields better health outcomes to the initiates and gratification to the families.

Moreover, the associated costs of traditional circumcision to the State and affected families are difficult to quantify especially when considering the ad-hoc/coerced  involvement of police, health, social development, COGTA, municipalities etc. as per the complications of the practice. 

The following are suggestions on how the government can manage the suspension and criminalising of traditional circumcision. First the government may as a matter of urgency pass a legislation to this effect. When passed, the government may hurry towards informing the nation that the practise is illegal and whoever is found to be participating in it would be prosecuted and face a lengthy imprisonment.

In implementing this legislation, the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) may be urged to recruit people in provinces and villages where this practice is prevalent. The recruits would not be known by the public that they work for NIA as their responsibilities would be to solicit and relay the information to the authorities of any possible practice of traditional circumcision. The strength of this proposal is that it would create jobs, halt unnecessary deaths of young men and make us a people to appreciate the unquestionable advantages of medical male circumcision rather than holding on to this practice which brings us nothing but perpetual loss of innocent lives.

Writer's Profile

Moses Mncwabe is a former student of university of Stellenbosch, UKZN and Zululand. He is employed as a researcher in one of the public entities in Cape Town. He is passionate about community development issues including education and health.

[1] Feni, (2016).

[2] Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism (2016).


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