Black rite of passage may be an abuse of kids’ rights
Around this time of year, Aborigines are conducting ceremonial business in central Australia, including circumcision initiation rites.
News Ltd reported on Monday that three teenagers had turned up at the Tennant Creek hospital, 500km north of Alice Springs, bleeding badly from circumcision procedures that had gone wrong.
They had been circumcised in a makeshift bush camp just out of town. The boys spent three nights in hospital. It can be revealed here that a fourth teenager presented at Tennant Creek hospital on Sunday night, also with lacerations.
That four young men presented in this manner would indicate that the master of ceremonies was incompetent or, as some townsfolk have said, drunk.
It is known that some boys were cut against their will and without parental consent, but that doesn’t mean this is a straightforward police matter. A person can consent to having an ear pierced, getting tattooed, or having surgery.
Furthermore, male circumcision is legal in Australia. It’s just that most doctors refuse to conduct the operation, considering it unnecessary and cruel.
The question of whether circumcision constitutes abuse occupies reams of ethereal internet pages, not that there’s any doubt in the mind of the Jewish lobby. But customary Aboriginal circumcision has not been a public topic.
There is currently a federal intervention afoot in the Northern Territory, with all forms of Aboriginal child abuse supposedly under scrutiny. After News Ltd started asking questions, the hospital covered itself by notifying Family and Community Services.
What action FACs will now take is unknown. If FACs interviews the boys, they won’t learn a thing. This is not white business.
But the potential dangers of bush circumcisions have already exercised white minds. Northern Territory health authorities provide some remote-area clinics with special “ceremonial kits” for Aborigines, which include swabs, sterile cutting implements and post-operation pain relief.
But no pre-operation anaesthetic. Doctors and bush nurses would generally not be permitted to enter the ceremonial ground. The boys are expected to grin (while biting down on a mulga stick) and bear it.
Mastering or overcoming the pain is part of the boy’s passage to manhood. It raises curly questions. If someone is forced to experience pain, are they being abused?
It is a genuine issue for both white and black cultures, but the Northern Territory Government knows that even if it wanted to outlaw the custom (it doesn’t), Aborigines would simply take it further underground. Boys might then be cut with broken glass bottles (not unheard of, which is why the circumcision kits were introduced), kitchen knives or even sharpened rocks.
Aborigines demand the right to continue practising their culture without outside interference, but the circumcision rituals also reveal a clash within black culture.
Many young Aboriginal men want to become initiated. It makes them proud, complete. But some are terrified of going through the ceremonies. That is why one Tennant Creek local told me of seeing a teenager, who had escaped from the ceremonial camp, running through the streets of Tennant Creek, being pursued by a painted-up elder. It is believed the boy was seized and dragged back for the cut.
In most communities, circumcisions are performed on boys aged between nine and 13, but the boys are getting older. That’s because they hide out when the so-called Red Ochre Men come looking for them at this time of year.
The older blokes are determined that their tribe’s boys will be cut. If not this year, they’ll get them the next.
Aboriginal mothers have reported seeking to have their sons circumcised in hospitals, rather than in the unsterile conditions of a makeshift bush camp.
It is understood that sterile scalpels were provided to the elders who circumcised the Tennant Creek boys. The boys were cut while lying in the dirt, most probably while being restrained by up to four men.
I got a fan email from an Aboriginal bloke in Tennant after the first story was published. He wrote: “I wish Paul Toohey would get all his facts right. I know for a fact that no alcohol is involved with the ceremonies. As for the people observing things, you do not even understand what is going on, you bunch of ignorant morons. Yes I had the treatment myself and I am OK. Just wish Paul would get his f*****g facts right. Must not be hard to get a job as a journalist.”
This bloke did not specify whether he was circumcised in this year’s ceremonies, or whether he was even present at them.
Done right, there should be no interference in ritual male circumcision. But it’s no coincidence that four boys emerge from the same ceremony ground, spilling blood. When it’s being done under the influence of alcohol, you’re going to attract unwanted attention.
Those boys will probably now be over their pain, perhaps even feeling proud for having gone through ceremony. In a few years’ time, they can look forward to the final procedure which will take them to the status of a fully initiated man: sub-incision, or whistle-cocking. And maybe even having a front tooth knocked out.
With scars like that, no wonder tribal men don’t bother with bolts through their eyebrows.
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