Highlights from the Keele Symposium by Tim Hammond

The Nordic Delegation at The Keele Symposium

Highlights from the Keele Symposium

by Tim Hammond

The 14th International Symposium on Genital Autonomy and Children's Rights took place on September 14-16, 2016 at Keele University in England. The theme was Changing Global Perceptions: Child Protection and Bodily Integrity. Approximately 77 professionals and human rights campaigners attended the event, 23 of whom were presenters. 

DAY ONE of the conference, September 14, 2016 was devoted to Child Protection, Law and Ethics. In her talk about Child Protection, Dr. Jackie Kilding (University Hospital of North Midland) stressed, "Parents only have such rights as are necessary to fulfill their responsibility towards their child." This theme was echoed by attorney Michael Thomson, speaking on Legal Developments and Strategies for Change, in which he noted that understanding the shared rights of children leads to understanding shared harm and helps to build political alliances. Michael reviewed the groundbreaking 2015 legal decision by respected family court judge Sir James Munby in which Munby noted that Type IV female genital mutilation (FGM) (nicking or scratching the female prepuce) is less invasive than typical male circumcision, and that Type 1a FGM (removing the female prepuce) is “physiologically somewhat analogous to male circumcision.” Munby's holding that male circumcision constitutes “significant harm” represents an important first step upon which subsequent court decisions can build to ultimately recognize the damage done by genital cutting of boys.

An insightful presentation titled Genital Alteration: Towards More Empirical, Ethical and Effective Policies by the University of London’s Rebecca Steinfeld addressed the current double standard by which FGM is targeted for elimination as a human rights violation while male genital mutilation (MGM) is tolerated or even promoted as a measure to promote global health. Steinfeld asked, What if instead of framing the argument as an issue of male vs. female, or as religion vs. culture, we focused on consensual vs. non-consensual genital modifications? She proposed four possible alternative approaches to overcome the current inequities involving childhood genital cutting policies by either increasing protection for boys or decreasing protection for girls.

Later in the day, Barrister James Chegwidden presented his talk titled Not Drowning, Paddling: The English Court's Slow Row Towards Genital Autonomy. He discussed several High Court cases, including the now famous judgment of Sir James Munby. James warned that we can't expect massive changes, but can strive for incremental changes that reflect changing social mores. He sounded a hopeful note by citing a judge in one case who used a modern, autonomy-based approach to children's rights.

DAY TWO of the conference, September 15, 2016, focused on Politics and Activism. For this reporter, the most useful information came from the Intersex presentations. Kitty Anderson, Chair of Intersex Iceland (I.I.). , spoke on the topic of Activism, Media and Change in Iceland. She began with a very helpful definition of the term 'intersex'. Kitty defines intersex as anyone 'born with non-normative sex characteristics'. An intersex person can have any gender identity or sexual orientation. To the amazement and delight of most attendees, she stated that in 2016 Intersex Iceland is pushing for legislation based on the concept of the universal human right to bodily integrity, which would outlaw surgical alteration of any non-consenting child's sex characteristics, thereby protecting the child's physical integrity and bodily autonomy. The Icelandic law is being promoted under the theme of 'You shall not cut healthy children' and 'My body belongs to me'. It will apply to genital surgeries done for cosmetic, social, or religious reasons.  To accomplish this, I.I. formed alliances with the Icelandic LGBTI community and the women's and disability rights movements. 

Despite MGM and IGM being entrenched medical procedures, Kitty insisted that they are 'harmful traditional practices' as defined under Article 24.3 of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. Because the medical community is not willing to listen to intersex persons or circumcised men, we need to get the society to parrot what we are all saying and to tell the medical community the same message: don't cut healthy children's genitals! [Editor’s Note: such a tactic cannot yet be used with regard to the U.S. since the U.S. is the only nation that has still not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child.] 

Dr. Mitchell Travis and Dr. Fae Garland presented on the topic of State Responses to Intersex Embodiment, Challenges and Opportunities. They noted the all too common failure of states to protect individuals from the medical profession. Dr. Clare Chambers from the Faculty of Philosophy at University of Cambridge gave a fascinating talk titled Cultural v. Cosmetic Surgery: Challenging the Distinction. She differentiated genital surgeries as cultural (such as FGM and religious MGM) as compared to those that are cosmetic (done for beautification or normalization). She cited examples of Western social pressure on women to attain esthetically pleasing genitals. Dr. Chambers posited that all cosmetic surgery is a subset of cultural surgery because beauty norms are cultural. As one example, she contrasted Western horror at FGM practices − that can adversely affect sexual pleasure and which many African women accept unquestioningly − with the horror expressed by some African women upon learning of the West's casual acceptance of breast implants. 

Before breaking for lunch, a panel presentation involving the morning speakers and titled The Way Forward was moderated by Professor Michael Thomson. Of particular note was discussion on bringing circumcision test cases to court to advance boys' rights to genital autonomy. 

Perhaps most disappointing for this observer − and other attendees with whom I spoke − was the afternoon presentation by Dr. Ann-Marie Wilson, Founder and Executive Director of 28 Too Many, a London-based anti-FGM organization whose talk was titled FGM: Can it Ever be Acceptable? Dr. Wilson spoke at the 2015 Frankfurt symposium, a presentation that seemed to parrot what Western media and women's groups − led mostly by uncircumcised women − have spoon-fed the public.  This year's presentation seemed to be a repeat presentation geared more for newcomers to the issue and, as such, offered most Keele attendees no new information. 

In contrast to anti-FGM organizations that have staked out political positions that refuse taking a public position in support of genital autonomy for boys, it was encouraging to hear a courageous and straightforward presentation on Developments in Finland and Nordic Countries by Tuomas Kurttila, Children's Ombudsman of Finland. Mr. Kurttila drew an extended analogy between past, successful work to stop corporal punishment and the current struggle to protect children’s genital autonomy in Finland.  Mr. Kurttila acknowledged that change is happening in religious communities, consistent with the belief that circumcision cannot be justified before the age of reason and consent. He suggested that families cannot always be trusted to do what's in the best interests of the child, especially in cases involving genital cutting. Mr. Kurttila asserted very clearly that 'It is not proper upbringing to cut children'. 

The day continued with Maryam Namazie, a political activist from the Council of Ex-Muslims speaking on the topic of Council of ex-Muslims and their Role in Changing Minds. Ms. Namazie stated that respect for religion or religious freedom should not be used as an excuse for not criticizing religious practices. She urged that our main concern should be for the rights of the child. 

Dr. Antony Lempert from the Secular Medical Forum rounded out the day with an excellent talk titled First Do No Harm: Variations on a Theme. In it, he reviewed the principles of medical ethics that recognize, among others, autonomy, beneficence, non-maleficence and justice. He reminded attendees that, with regard to male circumcision, 'No evidence of harm does not mean evidence of no harm'. 

The day closed with a special screening of a teaser trailer from Brendon Marotta's documentary "American Circumcision" currently in production. 

DAY THREE of the symposium, September 16, 2016, began with a touching memorial by Lloyd Schofield to the life and work of Jonathon Conte (1981-2016). A very moving interview with Jonathon speaking about the pervasiveness of circumcision harm can be viewed at https://soundcloud.com/bdfilm/in-memory-of-jonathon-conte

Margaret Green presented an insightful paper prepared by Glen Poole titled Understanding the Pathways to Male Suicide. Globally, men are 3 to 4 times more likely than women to take their lives (one man every minute). According to Poole, we live in a world where the dominant paradigm says: "Women HAVE problems and men ARE problems."  When men face problems they can no longer fix or cope with, they choose suicide as the only remaining option. Poole's paper suggested that the ability to cope with problems is shaped by early childhood experiences (e.g., trauma, violence, abuse). 

Next up was John Dalton's presentation Genital Cutting and Suicide: Is There a Relationship? Dalton asked if the higher suicide rate among males has any relation to male genital cutting. Can it be empirically proven that suicide is in any way associated with genital cutting? 

Tommi Paalanen, Chair of the Committee on Sexual Ethics of the Finnish Association of Sexology, and Advisory Co-Chair of the Sexual Rights Committee for the World Association for Sexual Health, then spoke regarding Professional Ethics in Health Care: What is Harm? Paalanen began by asserting that 'freedom' means that the individual has the right to direct one's own life, and that all interventions against such freedom must be reasonably justified. He added that when one's actions harm other people, such actions cannot be justified and prohibitions against such harm must be enacted. 

Holly Greenberry from Intersex UK then spoke about Moving Towards a Psycho-Social Framework. Parents and caregivers need more education to realize that their children are eventually going to want to make their own fully informed decisions. Children do not need to be irreversibly sex assigned, mutilated, sterilized, hormonally infused and left with physical and emotional scarring. These amount to torture as defined by the United Nations. 

Dr. Comfort Momoh spoke on the topic of Consequences of FGM and Deinfibulation and began with a basic review of the types of FGM. She warned that all forms of FGM produce harm. This observer notes that if this is correct (e.g. removal of the female prepuce), then by definition, so too must male circumcision be harmful. Next Dr. H. Eli Joubert spoke to the issue of Considering the Psychosexual Impact of Circumcision. Through his work at the University of Surrey, Dr. Joubert works with men experiencing sexual dysfunction, including those affected by circumcision. He asserted that sex happens in the mind AND with the body and that if we are to be activists for genital autonomy, we need to be activists for the creation of care services for affected individuals.

Finally, Tiina Vilponen from Finland's Sexpo Foundation spoke about Counseling and Psychological Damage. In terms of effective counseling, Tiina offered the following guidance: Believe what your client says, be present, persist with your client, ask questions directly, see the person as a whole human, empower your client, be on your client's side, and uphold your client's rights.  Tiina closed her talk by reminding the audience that even if a government acts tomorrow for the sake of future children (e.g., by banning genital cutting), there are still victims from yesterday and today for which we need to develop services. 

The Keele symposium offered the opportunity for old friends to renew acquaintances and for new activists to meet.  Like most symposia, some presentations were definitely better than others. This particular symposium was more or less marketed as primarily focused on Europe, and thus many usual attendees were not present from North America.  Still it offered rewarding talks and useful connections.