Paul Mason and Germaine Greer on the rights of children

Recent public statements from Germaine Greer, one of Australia's most famous expatriates, and Paul Mason, Commissioner for Children Tasmania, show that there is growing support for children's rights and deepening concern that Australia is not doing enough to protect children from physical harm.

Paul Mason: Children should be treated as fully human

The following speech was given by Paul Mason, Commissioner for Children, Tasmania, at the joint FORWARD-NORM-UK press conference, in London, on 3 September 2008.

Thank you everybody. The commissioner of children, like your commissioners of children in the United Kingdom, is a body independent of elected government and created under statute that deals with child protection. It does not import the rights of children from the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) into domestic Tasmanian law. It says these are the guiding principles. So when I came into the job a year and a half ago, I was looking at a wide range of issues. I stumbled across FGM (Female Genital Mutilation), and I will be glad to talk to Naana [Otoo-Oyortey MBE, Executive Director of FORWARD] about this later. In Tasmania and Australia we do have government programs to educate, assist and support families who feel the pressure to conduct genital mutilation on the girls. We are devising various ways of assisting those families around the very problems Naana is talking about. We also have legislation like your legislation in the UK that criminalizes the procedure and criminalizes parents traveling out of the jurisdiction in order to have the procedure conducted on their daughters.

I will start my speech by referring to the person in Tasmania who leads the bicultural teams in Tasmania. When I first talked to her about FGM a year ago she said, “You know what? 100% of the time, when we hear through the grapevine that a family is contemplating a procedure on a girl or is contemplating leaving for Indonesia to have the procedure done there, 100 per cent of the time they say to us, “You do it to boys! You DO NOT tell us not to do it to girls!” And she said meeting this response is like walking into a brick wall. We have not yet come up with an answer for that. So I said to this bicultural leader, “I think I can help you. I think I can help you, if we can work together, yourself as a professional and myself as an independent advisor to the government to try and turn around the eyes of government.”

What needs to be changed? Marilyn [Milos] told me she’d been working within this organization and Steven [Svoboda], John [Geisheker], David [Llewellyn] and other people have been slugging away at this issue for decades before I stumbled upon it last year. I think there can be an element of navel gazing in the movement, with everybody sitting around congratulating each other for their views. And the reason I have come halfway around the world from a tiny rocky island town in Australia is because I really do want something to happen. I want our message to be heard in the larger world.

My British grandfather always talked about the “golden thread” of British law, the presumption of innocence. The golden thread in the circumcision issue is the rights of the child. All of the arguments of the proponents for FGM and for male circumcision revolve around the needs of adults. They all revolve around religious needs of adults, cultural needs of adults, traditional needs of adults and the epidemiological studies by adults about adult sexually transmitted diseases. Adults are saying these are appropriate things to do to children.

My perspective as Tasmania’s Commissioner for Children is that I am responsible for 117,000 children out of Tasmania’s total population of 480,000. My approach to my job has always been to lower the camera angle and look at the world from about table height. What do you see? The world looks enormously different from down there. Cars are a lot bigger and faster. Parks are a lot more beautiful, and your body is much more connected with yourself and who you are. That has been my perspective and my approach to this whole issue and I think that’s the easiest way to respond to the HIV trials in Africa. The most recent information from the World Health Organization (WHO) is that genital modification surgeries are being botched and need to be done properly in order to achieve a good outcome. That is all very well and I might enter the debate of what adults want to do with adults and what adult health promotion programs want to do with adults. But WHO should take great care regarding non-emergency surgery on children. I am concerned about children and I am concerned about the voice of the voiceless. Human rights for children are a new thing. Children in history have been treated as chattel for disposal. They have been treated as slaves. In later times, they have been treated as cheap labor. Only in the very end of last century did they start to be seen as people.

In 1948, the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which includes a reference to personal integrity, does not refer directly to children. It does talk about people. It took until 1989, when the CRC was created, for the U.N. to clear up this particular dilemma and say maybe we ought to have rules for children as well because people seem to be overlooking that fact that children are people. The rights that were protected under the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 were being ignored when it came to the little people. We got a new set of rules in 1989.

The march of children toward full humanity continues. I see all the people involved in intactivism as being involved with the march of history towards protecting the humanity of children. This is what it is about. This is why I am optimistic. It may not be in my lifetime, but I know there are cultures that perform mutilation on the boys and girls in their own cultures that used to do other things in their own histories that they no longer do. All cultures change. That is good news for us. It is good news for all the people living in those cultures. I am interested to hear Naana report that women do not think that circumcision is a good idea for their sisters, aunties, mothers, and girls. That voice is a voice that emerged from this century and at the end of last century. That voice was not present 150 years ago. So history marches forward. Germaine Greer said she was not concerned about the setbacks for feminism. She said history marches two steps forward and one step back. That is a wonderfully direct view of history. I acknowledge Germaine for that. I have to acknowledge Australia for that; she is possibly the most famous Australian.

(See Germaine Greer's remarks on male and female genital mutilation below.)

It is often said that parents have a right to decide what surgery their children undergo. But the other change that emerged from the twentieth century is the understanding that the rights of person A cannot trump the rights of person B. The rights of children are discrete. They exist on their own. If you ask children, they will agree with you. If you ask parents, they tend to get a little funny about questions of whether or not they have the right to hit “their” child, to whip “their” child, to wound “their” child or to ask a doctor to wound “their” child on their behalf.

I think one of the ways this movement is going to broaden its message is to tackle the medical profession, not primarily on medical grounds but on the human rights issues and the financial issues. I am here to bat for the children of Tasmania who are still at risk of genital mutilation and of injury by corporal punishment in the home. I have come all this way because I believe that no one who champions the rights of children can support the practice of routine neonatal circumcision. If a child grows up and wants to have a circumcision for any reason, I respect that.

But the child who is a neonate can not make that decision. Article Two of the Convention on the Rights of the Child says the child has the right to have a voice in decisions that are made about the child. There is no urgency to circumcision. So my message about circumcision is that it can wait. I call on all congress-people and all commissioners of children in every jurisdiction around the world to work together to eradicate this practice and to eradicate all non-medically indicated surgical practices on children of all kinds.

Source: ARC Newsletter, Vol. 7 (3), Fall 2009. Forward is the UK organisation concerned with female genital mutilation and Norm-UK the organisation focused on male circumcision.

Germaine Greer on male and female genital mutilation

Germaine Greer was in the news recently, speaking at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Sydney, where she attacked treatment of children and criticised Australia’s failure to protect them from many forms of physical harm, including circumcision. She made the point that in most states dogs enjoy better legal protection from cruel treatment than boys.

Speaking under the banner that freedom is the most dangerous idea of all, Dr Greer said children are the least free of all, and are owned like pets or slaves. “They can be mutilated with impunity,” she said. “No baby asks to be circumcised, or baptised for that matter. … We don’t recognise protest in children … against the conditions in which they are being raised, against a culture that is deeply hostile to children and frightened of them. Now in case that sounds like one of my madder and more exaggerated sayings, just think about it.”

(Sydney Morning Herald, 5 October 2009)

Greer made further critical comments on the common double standard whereby female genital mutilation (circumcision of girls or women) is regarded as a hideous abomination while circumcision of male infants or boys (male genital mutilation) is tolerated, approved or regarded as a suitable subject for coarse humour. In her book The Whole Woman she writes:

“Any suggestion that male genital mutilation should be outlawed would be understood as a frontal attack on the cultural identity of Jews and Muslims. Notwithstanding, the opinion that male circumcision might be bad for babies, bad for sex and bad for men is steadily gaining ground. In Denmark only 2 per cent of non-Jewish and non-Muslim men are circumcised on strictly medical grounds; in Britain the proportion rises to between 6 and 7 per cent, but in the US between 60 and 70 per cent of male babies will have their foreskins surgically removed. No UN agency has uttered a protocol condemning the widespread practice of male genital mutilation, which will not be challenged until doctors start to be sued in large numbers by men they mutilated as infants. Silence on the question of male circumcision is evidence of the political power both of the communities where a circumcised penis is considered an essential identifying mark and of the practitioners who continue to do it for no good reason. Silence about male genital mutilation in our own country combines nicely with noisiness on female mutilation in other countries to reinforce our notions of cultural superiority”.

She also comments:

“Male genital mutilation is considered trivial; female genital mutilation is considered devastating even if it involves nothing more than nicking the prepuce of the clitoris to provoke ritual bleeding.”

She also claims:

“The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that clitorises of more than three-eighths of an inch should be removed from baby girls before they are fifteen months old. Five such procedures are performed every day in the United States; such “reconstructive surgery” is not included in world statistics which estimate that 120 million women alive today have suffered genital mutilation.”

The source for this claim appears to be Martha Coventry, “The tyranny of the esthetic: Surgery’s most intimate violation”,  in On the Issues: The Progressive Woman’s Quarterly, Summer 1998, p. 16


In these passages Dr Greer is most interested in attacking double standards. Her point is that if Jews and Moslems are allowed to do it to boys, why shouldn’t Ethiopians and Somalis be allowed to do it to girls? She is actually inclined to defend female circumcision in tribal cultures, though it is not entirely clear whether this defence extends to forcible mutilation of girls, or whether it is limited to situations where mature women voluntarily seek it. If the latter, she reaches a position similar to that of Christine Mason in Exorcising excision: that forcible circumcision of minors of either sex should not be permitted, but that elective circumcision of either sex after the age of consent should not be restricted.

We would regard Martha Coventry’s claim with scepticism, though it is undoubtedly true that there are cases (in both the U.S.A. and Australia) where doctors have cut the clitorises of girls at the request of parents. For details of one woman’s experience, see Patricia Robinett, The Rape of Innocence: One Woman’s Story of Female Genital Mutilation in the U.S.A. (Eugene, OR: Aesculapius Press, 2006.) It is also true that many doctors (and not only in the U.S.A.) regard “excessive” foreskin length as yet another reason for circumcision.

Source: Germaine Greer, The Whole Woman (London: Doubleday, 1999), pp. 94-96

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