News Commentary

Real men are circumcised? Tales and travail of Pinoy male tradition

Ronald Mendoza and Alvin Perez - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - At 15, Bill (not his real name) knows that it’s a bit late for him to undergo what is popularly known as a rite of passage for males.

He, nevertheless, decided to go for it because of pressure from his peers and even from his father, who believes that circumcision will make him a real man.

“They say it’s really painful and I was afraid to go through the operation,” Bill said.

“Papa said I should be circumcised so that I won’t be teased anymore. They used to  (make fun of me)...” he added.

It was, however, not the first time the derogatory label “supot” (uncircumcised) prodded Bill to make a decision.

Owing to constant bullying by his classmates, Bill decided to stop going to school when he was Grade 5.

“Whenever I remember what they did to me, I lose my interest to go to school,” he said, adding that he was too afraid to tell his parents about his experience.

Thanks to a barangay project offering free circumcision every summer, Bill finally underwent the ritual that freed him from insults and regained his confidence as a male. He and his younger brother were circumcised last month.

“We were told to be brave and not to back out when we see kids crying,” Bill said.

While the medical  "benefits" of circumcision has been the subject of several debates, it can’t be denied that the practice is widely viewed as a requirement among Filipino males.

Those who are too afraid to embrace or are too bold to ignore what many view as an integral part of Pinoy machismo bear a stigma spawned by beliefs that were passed on from generation to generation.

Psychological reasons

Estrella Ranas, psychology instructor at the Bulacan State University, said circumcision in the Philippines is more related to culture than health.

“The primary reason is tradition. They (Filipino boys) know that when they reach this age, when it’s summer or before the classes open, they should go to the doctor to be circumcised,” Ranas said.

“Another one is the pressure, not actually from peers but the pressure from the family, the pressure of the environment and the people around them,” she added.

Ranas noted that circumcision helps a boy adapt socially and makes him more acceptable to his peers. In contrast, the one who shirks away from this rite of passage becomes the subject of ridicule.

“The insults could lower their (uncircumcised boys) self-esteem,” she said.

Bill’s father Ben (not his real name) convinced his children to undergo the operation not for its health benefits but because of what others would say if they fail to do so.

“I am also a man and if you are man you should have the mark. Otherwise, they will tease you and it can cause trouble,” Ben said, referring to a circumcised penis.

“I told them (his children) to undergo circumcision so that they can become true men.”

Ben said he was never bullied by his friends because they were circumcised together through the traditional ‘pukpok,’

In this method, boys are asked to chew guava leaves to help them endure the pain as the foreskins of their penises are removed through a piece of wood.

“When they arrived home, when their mother told me that my sons have been circumcised, I was happy. They are now circumcised like me,” Ben said.

‘Real men get circumcised’

Such mentality is already evident among some teenage boys who regard circumcision as a test of manhood.

“Real men get circumcised,” said Willy (not his real name), a 13-year old boy from Baliuag, Bulacan.

The grade seven student went through the operation last month to prove his masculinity to his friends.

Such point of view, however, is not universal. In fact, some groups in North America are advocating a ban on circumcision for young males, believing that the practice violates human rights.

Male circumcision is widespread in Muslim countries, Southeast Asia, United States, South Korea, and Israel but is not that common in Europe, South America and South Africa.

Kantaro Suzuki, a Japanese living in the Philippines, said they do not consider circumcision as  part of their culture. He, however, said he respects the decision of some of his countrymen who are now circumcised.

“We have a proper hygiene education system in public school. We know how to protect the (reproductive) parts of the body,” Suzuki said.

“I do respect the culture although it’s not part of the culture of Japan.”

In the Philippines, circumcision is almost universal and was even credited for low prevalence of human immunodeficiency virus in the country.

A recent survey by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), however, showed that most Filipinos undergo circumcision for the sake of being circumcised.

In a feature story it published in 2007, UNAIDS said circumcision is almost universial and typically occurs at age 10-14.

It reported that two-thirds of Filipino boys surveyed choosing to be circumcised “simply to avoid being circumcised” while 41 percent said it was part of a tradition.

Perhaps this explains the eagerness of some boys to willingly submit to the ritual, which some outsiders find puzzling.

Unlike other boys who were in tears as they approach the health center, Willy was excited because he was on his way to joining the ranks of real men. All it took were oversized shorts and determination to fulfill such dream.

As he entered the health center, Willy saw boys lying in bed and covering their faces with whatever object they can grab to avoid seeing the whole operation.

Those waiting in line chatted with their friends and played while those who are undergoing the operation bawled hysterically.

Willy smiled after the operation. It was unlikely that the cause of his joy was the reduced risk of urinary tract infection or prostate cancer or other health benefits offered by circumcision.

Rather, it was because of the thought that he now has something to prove to his peers.

Noel de Guzman, student wellness officer at Bulacan State University, said circumcision could be viewed as a form of accomplishment.

He agreed that socio-cultural reasons are the primary considerations why Filipino males submit themselves to the practice and personal hygiene is just secondary.

“It’s like a victory, an accomplishment. There is a sense of fulfillment. It is a stage wherein they were able to overcome something that they were afraid of,” De Guzman said.

“The notion that you are a coward disappears,” he added.

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