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Mass Male Circumcision: Cultural Imperialism and ‘Public Health’


Three-quarters of women interviewed in Kenya’s highest prevalence province say they prefer circumcised partners” screams the headline. Except that only 30 women were interviewed.

There’s a whole rash of articles in praise of circumcision on the PLOS ONE site (Public Library of Science) that I simply don’t have the time or energy to read. Articles about how wonderful the operation is in reducing HIV transmission from females to males (not the other way, though) don’t appear to have found anything new in all the years they have been coming out. That is, aside from different ways of exaggerating the very small level of protection circumcision may afford men, other things being equal.

Women interviewed also believed, incorrectly, that circumcised men are ‘more hygienic and cleaner’. I wonder what would lead to them believing such a thing? Many people believe that a woman must wash herself after (and sometimes before) sex to be ‘more hygienic’, yet it has been known for some time that this is not only untrue, but that ‘vaginal douching’ increases the risk of infection with HIV. The same is true of male genital douching, but it was circumcision enthusiasts who established this, so they are not in a hurry to disabuse people of this dangerous myth.

It is hard not to see the push for circumcision, which comes almost entirely from the US, as highly stigmatizing and culturally imperialistic. It sounds as if men (and women), who in this instance belong to a non-circumcising tribe, are being told that Luo men are dirty because they are uncircumcised and that, since HIV is almost always transmitted through unsafe sexual behavior in Africa (a popular HIV industry myth), this ‘lack of hygiene’ is caused by not being circumcised. All they have to do is submit to circumcision and everything will be fine.

The branding of Luos as unclean and unhygienic by Western health practitioners is no less despicable than the views of other Kenyan tribes, who do practice circumcision, about Luos being ‘mere children’ and their leaders being ‘unfit to govern’ the country because they are uncircumcised. It is beliefs like this that have contributed to a lot of the ‘tribal’ violence Kenya has experienced, especially around election time. It seems the Western funded efforts to circumcise hundreds of thousands of Luos, perhaps millions, are not above using ‘tribalism’ to achieve their own ends.

Despite the small numbers, it is alarming that most of the women are said to express a ‘preference’ for circumcised men on the basis of beliefs that even the author accept are unproven: that circumcised men are ‘cleaner’ or ‘more hygienic’, that it takes them longer for them to ejaculate and that they ‘perform better’. Especially as the number who have ‘true’ beliefs, ones propagated by those promoting circumcision, is a lot smaller.

Is this kind of ‘demand creation’, based on complete lies, acceptable just because those doing the highly aggressive promotion claim that circumcision is effective at reducing HIV transmission from women to men (the absolute reduction being about 1.3%)? Or is it completely unacceptable, not because the reduction is very small, or because the randomized trials constantly referred to are highly suspect, but because this is a crude piece of cultural imperialism dressed up as a public health program?

2 responses to “Mass Male Circumcision: Cultural Imperialism and ‘Public Health’

  1. d. davies June 14, 2014 at 8:17 pm

    Please don’t miss this article if you ever wondered about that “circumcision reduces HIV transmission by 60%” myth: http://blog.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk/2012/05/when-bad-science-kills-or-how-to-spread-aids/

  2. Simon Collery June 15, 2014 at 2:00 pm

    Thank you, I’m very familiar with the article, it’s a good piece of work.

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