In Rwanda, Circumcision Is All The Rage

The procedure is gaining popularity amongst young men who believe, erroneously, that it eliminates any risk of contracting HIV/AIDS.

 Circumcision is becoming a sign of "cleanliness" in Sub-Saharan Africa
Circumcision is becoming a sign of "cleanliness" in Sub-Saharan Africa
Alphonse Safari Byuma

BUGESERA - In Rwanda, circumcision has become trendy.

More and more young men have begun to have the procedure performed to limit the risks of HIV infection. The Ministry of Health launched its free male circumcision program in 2011, with a goal of medically circumcising 50% of men in two years as part of its HIV/AIDS prevention program.

Unfortunately there have been two drawbacks to this program. First, there is so much demand, that the Ministry of Health has been overwhelmed. In Rwanda, there are only two doctors for every 100,000 people. Second, it’s becoming apparent that many men do not know that being circumcised may only limit, not eliminate the risk, of being infected.

Prompted by the health and sex-related campaign, circumcision has also taken on a social appeal and status symbol. “We are always on the look-out, listening to the radio so we don’t miss announcements from the Rilima district board about the next circumcision campaign," says Kamanzi, a student from the Rilima school, in the eastern Rwandese town of Bugesera.

Since the operation is now free and performed by qualified government staff, there are so many candidates that demand can’t be met. "Some are going to neighboring provinces,” notes François Mutijima, another student.

Reducing risks

According to Gaspard Gasirabo, a health ministry representative for the Rilima district, workers from the ministry usually come on Thursdays, which is market day in the town. They try to convince teenagers and men to get circumcised by explaining how safe and simple the operation is.

Studies from the World Health Organization and UNAIDS have shown that circumcision can reduce the risk of HIV infection by more than half. Circumcision could prevent two million contaminations and 300,000 deaths over the next ten years in Sub-Saharan Africa.

“This active campaign has raised awareness among teenagers and young men. They are constantly asking me when the medical staff is coming back so that they can get circumcised for free,” explains Gaspard. Until then, they had to pay for the operation, and many went to traditional healers who performed it without respecting hygiene and safety standards.

However this newfound enthusiasm is also very risky, as it often results from a misinterpretation of the prevention message. Many teenagers and men wrongly believe that once they have the procedure, they do not need to wear a condom to protect themselves from HIV. Prevention is therefore still necessary to avoid sexually transmitted diseases, among men and women alike, as women can be infected by circumcised men.

How circumcision creates discrimination

Among young people, circumcision has actually become “fashionable.” Thanks to the Internet and television, they learned that in neighboring countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda, circumcision was often a tradition, and not only for Muslims. For these young people, circumcision has become a sign of cleanliness.

And for those who do not follow fashion, life can become complicated. “I decided to pay 50,000 Rwanda Francs ($80) to get circumcised. I couldn’t stand being insulted by other students anymore. They called me a good-for-nothing, a kafiri (‘uncircumcised) or a bottleneck (referring to a non-circumcised male organ),” says François.

Three of his friends also admit they went through a similar experience. “Rwandese society still accepts uncircumcised men, but in some districts, they are sometimes frowned upon. And it’s even worse in high school, where they are discriminated against,” reveals Gaspard.

Among girls and women, circumcised men have also gained some prestige lately, in a country where the custom was not very common until now. Mrs Kanyange, a mother of three, thinks that despite its cost, circumcision has great advantages: “It ensures cleanliness, and the operation is also an esthetic one for men.”

For these reasons, men would like circumcision to be covered by their health insurance. Andrew Makaka, former National Health Insurance director, is more cautious on this issue: “Circumcision is a prevention surgery, and therefore it is not included in Health Insurance schemes. It would all the more difficult since the latest census reveals that more than 1.5 million men wish to get circumcised...”

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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