Philippine “circumcision season” underway after virus delays


Caspien Gruta has been teased for more than a year because his circumcision – a rite of passage for boys in the Philippines – was delayed first by a volcanic eruption and then by the coronavirus pandemic.

“I worry if I don’t get circumcised now, I’ll be ashamed,” said Gruta, 12.

The Philippines has one of the highest rates of circumcision in the world, and many see the centuries-old practice as key for boys to become male.

While circumcision is under increasing scrutiny elsewhere, dubbed “child abuse” by some critics, it is rarely questioned in the Philippines and boys are under tremendous pressure to undergo the procedure.

Every year, thousands of teenage children receive free surgeries in government or community-funded clinics.

But last year, due to the virus outbreak, the “circumcision season” was canceled for the first time in living memory, which delayed the milestone for many boys like Gruta.

Left in the balance – and with their foreskin intact – the boys were ridiculed by their male relatives and friends.

Gruta was one of the oldest boys to stand on a covered basketball court in a makeshift clinic in Silang, Cavite, south of Manila, one of the few provinces that has slowly resumed free service since May.

“I feel like a real Filipino now, because circumcision is part of being a Filipino,” said Gruta after the 20-minute procedure.

The boys wore masks and face shields and sat on plastic chairs next to a row of wooden tables surrounded by a red curtain.

Some looked excited or did their best to look casual. Others fidgeted while they waited.

After taking off their shorts, the teenagers lay down on a table with their legs hanging over the edge and their groin covered with a surgical drape.

Some bit into a washcloth or covered their eyes when they were given a local anesthetic. The surgeon then went to work.

“I was circumcised because they said I would get taller and get better at sport,” said 12-year-old Almer Alciro, who went to another outpatient clinic because of his delayed surgery.

His family couldn’t afford a private hospital where the operation cost up to 12,000 pesos ($ 240) – more than many workers earn a month.

While he waited for the free service to resume, his friends mocked him as “uncircumcised” – an insult akin to cowardice in a country where the trial is a sign of manhood.

“I am glad that I am finally circumcised,” said Alciro.

‘Demarcation line’

Circumcision has been practiced in the Philippines for centuries and has survived wars and colonization by Spain and the United States.

Male circumcision tends to be more common in countries with significant Muslim or Jewish populations and less so in places with a Catholic majority.

Nevertheless, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), around 90 percent of men in the Philippines are circumcised for non-religious reasons.

Boys as young as eight are under social pressure to go under the knife. Even hospital advertising pushes boys to be “man enough”.

Mass circumcisions are common in the hottest months, April through June, when school children have an extended break.

Hundreds of boys are usually operated on outdoors in a single day, but Covid-19 rules have drastically reduced group size.

Many areas have yet to restart the free service in the fight against Covid-19.

The delays have knock-on effects.

Circumcision is an important “dividing line” between boys and men as the teens take on more family responsibilities and learn about sex, said Nestor Castro, professor of anthropology at the University of the Philippines.

“Once a boy is circumcised, he is already leaving the child’s position and is now considered … an adult,” Castro said.

“If you are a circumcised man, behave as a grown man, no longer as a young boy.”